Pacific women leaders meeting a global first

“Whatever the journey has been, you have undoubtedly worked harder than your male colleagues.” - male leaders honour Pacific women at inaugural women leaders meeting

9th June, 2022

Pacific women leaders meeting a global first

Samoa's Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa was one of the keynote speakers at the first Pacific Island Forum Women Leaders meeting. 

Khalia Strong

“Women are every bit as capable of being good, responsible leaders as men.”

These were the rousing words from Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, at the first  Pacific Islands Forum meeting for Women Leaders. 

“We need to move beyond rhetoric and enhance our efforts to promote and educate and lift the representation of women in decision-making roles in politics, businesses and communities.”

Increasing women in leadership positions, and putting an end to domestic violence were the main issues of the women’s forum, with chair Rosy Akbar, also Fiji’s Minister for Women, saying it will set the foundation for future meetings and create a platform for collective action and regional accountability. 

“While the region has made significant progress, the Pacific still has the lowest percentage of women’s political participation globally, and violence against women and girls is amongst the highest in the world.”

The first Pacific Islands Forum Women Leaders meeting in Suva, Fiji. Photo / Zoom

Pacific Islands Forum chair and Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama agreed with the grim statistics, saying women are vital and necessary for progress. 

“Without the full inclusion of women in decision-making roles, we have zero hope of achieving effective, practical solutions to the myriad of 21st century challenges we face.

“Yet, it has taken us decades to convene a women-centered political forum, despite the data telling us of the multiple barriers our girls and women are up against.

“Fifty percent of women and girls in the region have experienced violence at the hands of partners or family members, and the percentage of women in Pacific parliaments is 6.4%, compared to 25.5% internationally. 

“As a father of five hardworking daughters, these numbers alarm me.”

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In his keynote address, Bainimarama honoured the women in attendance, and their sacrifices along the way.  

“Some of you were the first woman in your family to get a degree. Others were the first heads of the agencies, or the first woman prime minister in a country. You had to defy conventions, traditions and perhaps even your family to reach where you are today.

“Whatever the journey has been, you have undoubtedly worked harder than your male colleagues.”

Palau Vice President Jerrlyn Uduch says in her culture, Pacific women hold significant leadership positions, and would like to see this reflected in government. 

“Traditionally, Palau is matrilineal. The women hold the power because we make decisions regarding lands and traditional wealth. 

“When a man is a chief, he has to listen to his sister.”

Uduch is also a lawyer and long-time advocate for gender equality, and says women bring a unique approach and perspective.  

“As women leaders, we are so deeply interconnected to our communities and have a holistic perspective of the land we work, the sea we depend on for its value, and our own needs as well as those of our families and communities. 

“Because of this, women's voices in decision and policy making are imperative for lasting sustainable development.”

Leaders and representatives from around the Pacific tuned in for the first Pacific Island Forum Women Leaders meeting. Photo / Zoom

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says encouraging strong participation from women is vital for a healthy society.

“Gender inequality stagnates social and economic progress.  

“Gender equality is an essential foundation for building peaceful societies, driving economies, sustained development, regional resilience and the realisation of full human potential.”

Ardern also acknowledged the recent appointment of former Labour MP Louisa Wall, to the role of Pacific Ambassador for Gender Equality.

Tackling gender equality as a region

In 2012, leaders signed the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration to work towards ending violence towards women and improving leadership and education opportunities, as well as access to reproductive health services. 

Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Henry Puna, who was Prime Minister of the Cook Islands at the time, says the declaration needs an update. 

“There needs to be better visibility, coordination and ownership of gender equality at national and regional levels. This includes the need for better alignment of all gender equality related actions and to other priorities."

He says strong governance and oversight on gender equality can support progress and be a conduit for shared learning. 

“It is for this reason that we are revitalising the Declaration to ensure it truly delivers for specific women and girls in all their diversity.”

Increasing women’s roles in all sectors in the region was readily endorsed by Fiame, who says coming together as a region is crucial, moving forward. 

“If ever there was a more appropriate time to further advance gender equality priorities and integrate gender perspectives across the raft of challenges that we face in our Blue Pacific region - that time is now.

“The glass ceiling may still exist today across various sectors and parts of our societies, but we are most assuredly bringing these barriers down.

“It is our collective responsibility to empower women and girls economically, socially, educationally and also politically.”