Women have a vital role in Pacific politics
Recently in the Cook Islands I had the opportunity of having breakfast with some of the Cook Islands’ most prominent female citizens.
Nikki Rattle, the CEO of the Cook Islands Red Cross, is a warm and engaging woman with boundless energy.
I grew up the son of Victoria’s first Equal Opportunity Commissioner and Nikki reminded me of the many women I met in my mother’s company during my childhood: emotionally intelligent and very strong.
In the midst of explaining to me the role of women in the Cook Islands she was gently urging our companion – Frances Topa Apera from the Cook Islands National Council of Women – to take a higher profile in the affairs of the Cook Islands.
Frances is a younger, well educated woman bursting with potential. If the opportunity presents for Frances to make a greater contribution to the Cook Islands then her nation will be much the better for it.
Strong, powerful women are not new to the Pacific. One of the great historical figures of her country, and the region, is Queen Salote III of Tonga.
A writer with a keen interest in history and archaeology, Queen Salote re-organized the Tongan Government into a more centralized administration in the face of early opposition from many tribal chiefs.
Over a long reign of 47 years she won the affections of Tongans and her death was deeply mourned.
Yet despite Queen Salote and the current pool of amazing women, the report card on women’s participation in government in the Pacific makes for sad reading.
All 11 Pacific Island Countries (PICs) that are UN members have less than 5% of their parliament being women. In fact of the 13 UN members with absolutely no women in their parliaments six are in the Pacific.
Given this lack of representation it is hardly surprising that other indicators around gender equality are equally stark.
In some parts of the Pacific the mortality rate for a mother giving birth is over 100 times what it is in Australia. Addressing these terrible statistics is a key focus of Australian aid in the region.
One of the most inspiring campaigners in the region for the rights of women is Dame Carol Kidu.
First elected to the Papua New Guinea Parliament in 1997 she was one of two women in the 109 person assembly. Today she is the only female MP. Dame Carol has been championing a bill which will provide for a 20% minimum quota of women in parliament.
It is a controversial measure. But no-one can doubt the transformative nature of the debate which it has created.
Recently Dame Carol announced that she will be retiring at the 2012 election. Women throughout PNG and the wider Pacific are eagerly waiting to see who will emerge as her political heir.
French Polynesia is one place where the electoral law is designed to ensure roughly equal representation of women and men in the legislative assembly. This might be a blunt public policy instrument but in the context of the Pacific the results are very noticeable.
Beatrice Vernaudon is the Mayor of Pirae and a member the French Polynesian Assembly.
She has previously served as a Minister in the French Polynesian Government and a member of the French Parliament. In her later fifties she is now one of the most respected figures in French Polynesia.
Like Nikki Rattle, she is warm, energetic and oozing authority. As she took me through a Papeete slum to show me a social housing project it was clear that she is a person people listen to.
She is living proof of the critical role that women can play in Pacific politics.
In Tonga I met a bright eyed class of ten year old kids. As the teacher asked questions about a science project, not surprisingly it was the little girls whose hands first shot immediately into the air. On each occasion they had the answer right.
Facing so many challenges the Pacific is simply not in a position to miss the full human potential these girls represent. They are future doctors, carers, leaders and much more. Their contribution to their country will uplift every citizen within it.
Because the female cause in the Pacific is not just women’s business. It is truly at the heart of the Pacific cause itself.
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