Sue Kedgley: Leaders need to look at gender equality

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The line-up of (mostly) male leaders at the last forum in Auckland in 2011 - and not much has changed, especially for Pacific women. Photo / Greg Bowker
The line-up of (mostly) male leaders at the last forum in Auckland in 2011 - and not much has changed, especially for Pacific women. Photo / Greg Bowker

This week our Prime Minister will join the leaders of 15 Pacific Island countries at the 44th meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum.

The 16 all-male leaders will meet for three days in the Marshall Islands, and discuss important issues such as climate change and Fiji's progress towards democratic elections next year.

But let's hope they will also find time to discuss gender equality in the Pacific, and why it is that women in the Pacific are worse off, in many respects, than most other women in the world.

Women hold only 5 per cent of the seats in national Parliaments in the Pacific - fewer than any other region in the world, including the Middle East. And there are no women in the Parliaments of some countries such as the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu.

Worse still, women in the Pacific experience the highest rates of domestic violence than any other region in the world.

Domestic violence is rife across the Pacific, and rape, including gang rape, is a serious problem. Around two-thirds of women in Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands are subjected to sexual or physical abuse. Surveys have found that sexual or physical abuse is such a daily reality for many Pacific women that they don't bother to report it, because they think that surviving in abusive relationships is a normal part of life.

In Papua New Guinea, for example, where polygamy is widespread, a law commission report found that most women don't report domestic violence until it has escalated into severe physical abuse.

Similarly, in Samoa, 85 per cent of abuse victims said they had never asked for formal help because they thought physical abuse was normal, or not serious enough.

Even when women do report domestic violence, police frequently ignore it or send women away, on the grounds that violence against women is a family matter that should be sorted out by the family.

A recent study in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea found that only one out of 163 cases of domestic violence that were reported to the police, was successfully prosecuted.

In many remote communities in the Pacific, there is almost no police presence anyway, and cases of domestic violence are often heard at village courts that are dominated by men.

At last year's Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands, the leaders of all Pacific countries pledged to take action to address this appalling situation. Sixteen countries signed up to a far-reaching Pacific leaders "Gender Equality Declaration", that promised to protect women from violence, improve their access to justice, increase the number of women in leadership and political roles in the Pacific, and improve economic opportunities for women through better access to finance and markets.

But I suspect that not much has happened to implement the declaration, since it was signed last year, and that most women in the Pacific are unaware that their leaders have pledged to take far-reaching actions to improve gender equality throughout the Pacific.

The Australian Government, to its great credit, has pledged $320 million over the next decade to help achieve gender equality in the Pacific. But I doubt that many other countries have done much, in a practical sense, to implement the wide-ranging commitments they signed up to at last year's Pacific Islands Forum.

All countries, including our own, need to make specific commitments at the upcoming forum to address each of the issues raised in the declaration.

Otherwise, like so many other worthy declarations before it, it will simply gather dust and women in the Pacific will continue to experience the highest rates of violence, and lowest rates of political participation, in the world.

Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.

- NZ Herald

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