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On International Women’s Day 2019 a large audience, including a contingent of current male and female Australia Awards scholars, attended a special panel seminar on Pacific women’s political participation at the invitation of ANU’s Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA), and the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs.
Drawing on this year’s International Women’s Day theme, ‘Balance for Better’, the panel of eminent leaders and academics explored gender balance through the prism of women’s political participation in the Pacific. Panel convenor, DPA Research Fellow Dr Kerryn Baker was joined by Honourable Ali’imalemanu Alofa Tuuau (MP, Samoa), Dr Transform Aqorau (a former Chief Executive Officer of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement and a DPA Visiting Fellow) and Sarah Garap (a renowned social and political activist from Papua New Guinea).
Many Pacific countries currently rank amongst the lowest in the world for women’s representation in legislatures and other formal decision-making bodies. Women’s political participation is thus a prominent regional development issue. During the panel discussion Dr Kerryn Baker remarked that “every independent Pacific state is under the global average when it comes to women in politics”. She added that, presently there are no women MPs in the Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. However, in non-sovereign Pacific countries, women’s political representation is above the global average. The percentage of women MPs in New Caledonia is 44%, in French Polynesia the percentage is 49% and in Guam the percentage is a world-leading 66%. Despite significant efforts to boost participation, the number of Pacific women in national and sub-national levels of government remains stubbornly low. The panel discussed some of the factors contributing to this including social, cultural and/or customary norms that deem politics to be a man’s job; women’s lack of access to property, finance and other resources; and institutional and structural hindrances, including lack of childcare and leave provisions.
The panel also examined the role of male leaders in helping to change power dynamics and open up decision-making spaces to women and discussed the importance of building pathways to women’s leadership from community and local levels up to national, regional and international levels. The event was one in the Pacific Leadership Seminar Series funded under the Australian Government’s Australia Awards Women’s Leadership Initiative.