Gender disparity in Pacific politics | Balance of Power project aims to empower women in leadership

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Australian Deputy High Commissioner to Fiji Claire McNamara speaks during the launch of the Balance of Power program at the Civic Centre in Suva earlier this month. Picture: RUSIATE VUNIREWA

Less than 7 per cent of Pacific politicians are women, compared with 27 per cent globally.

This means the Pacific’s representation of women in politics is among the worst in any region in the world, says an Op-Ed penned last month by former New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Pacific Office resident representative Munkhtuya Altangerel.

The writers further stated that while a semblance of progress is being made, this is being done at a snail’s pace compared with the accelerated need for change required by the region.

And in Fiji’s context, only five of the 55 Parliamentarians, elected in the 2022 General Election, are women. These numbers have dropped consistently since the 2014 election.

So why the disparity?

Historically, leaders like Taufa Vakatale, Fiji’s first woman deputy prime minister or former Lautoka mayor Maureen Wright, the first woman to be elected to local government in 1967, have been trailblazers on the political scene.

Now, with the impending municipal council elections, the topic of whether women’s participation in these spaces will be up for discussion.

And to further empower women in leadership roles, the Balance of Power project was born. The program, funded by the Australian Government, maintains a presence in Fiji, Tonga, and Vanuatu.

Its primary role is to support Pacific Island countries achieve their objectives of inclusive and effective leadership in line with their national policy frameworks.

The interesting aspect is its local-led approach, which has also culminated in partnerships with several NGOs and partners on the ground.

Last week, the project was formally launched in Suva, and partners are hopeful this initiative will bring a change in women’s participation in the upcoming elections.

A unique approach

Earlier this month, the Balance of Power Fiji country project was launched in Suva by Deputy Prime Minister Viliame Gavoka.

Balance of Power Fiji country manager Josaia Osborne said they had made significant strides in advancing gender equity and fostering inclusive governance practices through fulfilling partnerships and collaborations.

He also said there were times when their partners had “pushed back” to reorient the way the program worked.

Mr Osborne said these open and honest engagements were part of the strength of the program’s approach.

According to Fiji Council of Social Services (FCOSS) executive director Vani Catanasiga, FCOSS had worked steadily on a women’s leadership pipeline from the community to the national level since last year.

“At this point, we’ve almost finalised a framework for how we bring women who lead during disaster responses, who are frontliners when it comes to climate change, who deal with social issues while not getting any pay, they are all volunteers,” she said.

“For us, with balance of power, we thought that that’s already demonstrating leadership that’s absent at the national level. Leadership, that’s selfless, that places people first, that cares about the needs of their communities.

“We thought that we must understand what enables that transition to national level leadership because we all agree that national level leadership must improve. The competencies of those we elect in power must include care for communities.”

Australia’s Deputy High Commissioner Clair McNamara also recounted her personal experience, and relayed the instrumental role played by her male colleagues in her professional development.

She agreed with Ms Catanasiga’s views that women did not work in isolation.

“There is a need to work with men to open up the spaces for women in leadership, and so, it’s wonderful to see so many male colleagues

here who are celebrating and part of this journey with us,” she said.

“Many of you are aware that in 2023, the Prime Minister signed the renewed and elevated Vuvale partnership.

“And under this agreement, we’re committed to working with Fiji to ensure women can participate fully and freely in political, economic, and social life, including through the implementation of the Fiji national action plan to prevent violence against women and girls.”

Women at the forefront Ms Catanasiga said women were already strong leaders in their communities, and these different types of leadership were the ones needed at the national level.

She said there were women who had expressed interest in contesting the municipal elections.

“We’re working steadily with them, and we hope that through this work with Balance of Power, that we’ll have more women contesting the elections at municipal council level, but we’re confident that by 2026, you will see more women contesting national elections.”

Ms Catanasiga said personally, she was very excited to work alongside Balance of Power because they did not come to their partners with a “readymade formula”.

“They haven’t tried to come to us with a preconceived idea for how that happens, which is why we’ve chosen to partner with Balance of Power in this work because they’ve come asking us about the experiences of the women who are currently leaders of our networks.

“They’re building on the strengths of these women, rather than trying to bring them out of the locales or perhaps the situations they’re in, or circumstances, and then trying to re-teach them things.

“To me, the Balance of Power approach is an appreciative approach, which other development partners who work in the area of women in politics need to learn from.”

Need for equitable opportunities There is a need for equal access to skills and opportunities for professional development, however, this isn’t the sole barrier preventing women from holding leadership positions of equal representation, says Deputy Prime Minister Viliame Gavoka.

He said this equality was impeded by the attitudes, perceptions and social norms which delegitimised women’s suitability and capability as political leaders.

“To influence discriminatory attitudes and norms that undermine women’s leadership legitimacy, one has to understand the complexity of historical, cultural and religious drivers that underpin and shape our attitudes and behaviours,” he said.

Mr Gavoka said those with lived experiences of this contextual complexity were best positioned to identify and maximise promising entry points and green shoots of progressive change.

“Drawing on the insights, experiences and networks of these local leaders, Balance of Power will be extremely well-guided in its strategic planning and implementation approaches to shift mentalities and attitudes.

“And this expertise comes from a range of sectors – civil society, churches, and the media.

“If we want to change deeply rooted attitudes and actions around gender equality, we need to think differently and collaborate with non-usual suspects rather than merely ‘preaching to the converted’.”

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