Pacific Islands women are quietly making their mark on male politics

Doing it for themselves: the Pacific women’s delegation at the AWID conference in Capetown in 2008. Image: Lisa Lahari-Williams

It was refreshing recently to see Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop draw national political attention to the question of Pacific women’s political status.

But her survey of the current problems facing women in the region also made for frustrating reading.

Bishop, whose comments came during the Pacific Islands Forum attended by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, emphasised women’s political invisibility and posited the importance of Australian women leaders in creating supportive networks that might assist their Pacific Islands sisters.

Regretfully, her analysis omitted the voices of Pacific women themselves, and any ideas they may have about how to best progress the question of their political representation.

Ms Bishop also ignored a good deal of evidence that suggests that Pacific women are already working effectively towards brighter futures.

My own work researching the political achievements of women from the Pacific Islands since decolonisation indicates that there are many more reasons for hope on this front than commonly understood within Australian policy-making circles.
First there is the question of formal political representation.

There is no doubt that women in the region have generally struggled to find their place in Pacific parliaments. Gendered divisions within many Pacific communities often mean women are expected to uphold more passive, domestic roles with Pacific men seen as agents of public and political transformation.

But contrary to Ms Bishop’s assertion, quotas or other electoral mechanisms which provide women with guaranteed access to parliamentary seats do play a role in changing these community attitudes in the Pacific.

One only has to look at the striking example of the Pacific’s Francophone territories – New Caledonia or French Polynesia – to see evidence of this. Within these French administered “collectivities” parity laws adopted in 2001 now require political parties to nominate equal numbers of women and men on their electoral lists.

The result has been a significant increase in women’s electoral representation rising from 17% to 46% in the Congrès de Nouvelle Calédonie and 12% to 48% in the Assemblée de Polynésie.

More important even than this numerical rise in political representation is the example these women politicians present for future generations of Pacific men and women.

It has been shown that women’s presence within these assemblies has led to a reshaping of political practice more generally. Elected women bring a new seriousness to the role of political representative and a new dedication to questions of financial management and parliamentary committee work.

At the same time increasing numbers of women, some attaining high political office, also provide evidence of women’s political capacity and help reorient the view of institutional politics as a male only domain.

It has been frequently argued here in Australia that the intricacies of the Francophone territories’ political systems are unique and make Parity provision more workable there than in other Pacific Islands countries.

But such criticisms miss the broader point. Where parity provisions are in place they allow Pacific women to prove their political credentials and legitimacy.

The achievements of these women within the Parity system therefore need much greater regional airplay because they discount the popular view that Pacific Island women lack aptitude for, and interest in, public political life.

This view is also contradicted if we examine the significant political contributions Pacific women make outside the formal domain of institutional politics and within civil society, another area of achievement relevant to Ms Bishop’s analysis.

From this perspective it becomes much easier to see the important political work Pacific women do as part of church organisations, labour organisations, women’s advocacy groups, cultural groups and welfare associations.

For example, networks of women’s advocates from across the Pacific have played a crucial role in persuading Pacific governments to ratify the UN CEDAW convention which aims to eliminate discrimination against women.

The fact that so many Pacific Island countries have willingly ratified a convention which places them under international scrutiny and obligates them to eliminate gender discriminatory legislative provisions within family law, constitutional law, or the criminal code, signals the increasing political clout of women’s organisations and their ability to secure solid political progress for women.

Another example can be found in reforms which have taken place within the region’s intergovernmental institutions. At various points in the last 20 years, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the Pacific Islands Forum have created policy desks specifically focussed on the regional status of women and questions of gender equity.

The Pacific Islands Forum has prompted an important side event which will allow Pacific women to address delegates on the Women Peace and Security agenda and regional implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

While civil society organisations across the region are, once again, lamenting the poor access they have been given to the Forum’s deliberations, it has been a different story for Pacific women.

Their ability to stage this event and secure high level forum participation reflects a history of sustained pressure put upon these regional bodies to democratise their deliberations and recognize the concerns of women.

It is often assumed that the work of women’s organisations in the Pacific has a non-political flavour; that it is about frontline practical assistance for the disadvantaged. This view is mistaken.

Women working in these associations may not grab front page political headlines in the ways that their male political counterparts frequently do.

They may go about their business more quietly.

But the roles they have played in transforming the political life of the Pacific region deserve greater recognition than they currently merit.

They have successfully prised open political space allowing for national debate on issues such as family violence, gender equitable legal reform, women’s media representation and wage equity. These are all noteworthy achievements.

Australian women leaders may certainly have a supportive role to play in assisting the leadership ambitions of Pacific women as Ms Bishop suggests but this needs to be a consultative process.

The first step? Understanding where and how Pacific women have, themselves, made their political mark.

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