Pacific Island women and politics
Dame Carol Kidu is not a name that resonates with many women around the world, despite the fact that she is a trailblazer as a 15-year veteran and sole female representative in the parliament of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Kidu was first elected to the Papua New Guinea Parliament in 1997 where she was one of two women in the 109-person assembly.
Before she retired in 2012 she was the only female MP and was supporting a bill to provide a 20 per cent minimum quota of women in parliament.
Unfortunately, her legacy has not paved the way for gender equity in the PNG parliament – or the rest of the Pacific for that matter.
Women hold a miserly 5 per cent of seats in Pacific Island parliaments, seriously lagging behind the UK where female political representation ranks at about 20 per cent.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) women’s political participation has been steadily rising in all regions except the Pacific.
While nations in the Francophone Pacific, particularly French Polynesia and New Caledonia, can boast a healthy number of women in Parliament with both nations reaching almost 50 per cent, the figures drop quite drastically with nations such as Tonga, Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands at 3 per cent, and Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia with no female political representatives.
Kim Henderson, UNDP gender team leader for Asia and the Pacific, said: “At the moment they have electoral systems which generally aren’t friendly to increasing the numbers of women,” given that the system favours the candidate with the most votes.
“The culture, the set-up often discourages women from being able to perform well, from wanting to choose a life in politics” because the work hours are not conducive to also caring for home and family.
“[This is] a particular issue in the Pacific where, in many countries there, women are subsistence farmers and are producing food to feed their families,” she explained.
And given these barriers, Henderson argues that creating gender parity could take more than 50 years in this region.
Gender parity in the Francophone Pacific is due to a 2000 French law that requires political parties to put forward equal numbers of male and female candidates.
The law positively impacted women’s elections in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, but not Wallace and Futuna where by March 2005 only two women served in the Territorial Assembly.
According to researcher Stephanie Guyon: “This law shows that it is not true that women are not ready to enter politics. When they are obliged to get involved, they do.”
While only the French Pacific has a parity law, Tara Chetty, program officer of the Fiji Womens Rights Movement, would like Fiji to go further and include a provision in the new Fijian constitution to reserve 50 per cent of parliamentary seats for women.
Chetty explained that women leaders got together and decided to put their proposal forward.
“We just wanted to make our intentions very clear,” she said, “that we’re very serious about the special needs of women in terms of their access to decision-making, that it can’t just happen organically on its own, because of the way that society is stacked against women.”
Reserving seats for women guarantees their participation, rather than in the case of the French Pacific where women are equally eligible to compete but rely on voters to place them in Parliament.
Other countries such as the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are also considering such a move.
The drive to increase women in state decision-making is included in the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
The third of 8 Global MDGs aims to promote gender equality and empower women in all arenas, including the political sphere.
All Pacific Island nations, with the exceptions of Nauru, Palau and Tonga, have ratified CEDAW, which more specifically references gender inequalities within global parliaments, calling for states to eliminate discrimination against women through legal and temporary special measures and affirmative action.
Yet, in order to achieve these goals, women also need training to seek political office, from campaigning, lobbying and working within the political infrastructures of their countries.
The Australian government is providing funding for a 10-year iniative focused on mentoring and training female political candidates for national and local elections.
A UNDP report published in September 2012 supports reserved seats for women.
The report, Gender Equality in Elected Office in Asia-Pacific: Six Actions to Expand Women’s Empowerment, outlines 6 ways to fast-track women’s entry into politics.
UNDP’s Kim Henderson said: “Research that we’ve done globally at the UNDP shows that reserve seats… are the most effective way of boosting the number of women represented in parliament.”
And so the UNDP has set up a six-point plan for women in politics.
It suggests a range of options to increase women’s political participation, including constitutional reform, implementing electoral laws, reserving seats and creating gender quotas, changes in party nomination procedures, developing capacities, and creating gender-sensitive rules and procedures in elected bodies.
With these kinds of changes UNDP hopes that the Pacific can achieve its Millennium Development Goals and that there will be more women like Dame Carol Kadu to inspire generations of girls to enter political life.