The statistics reflecting the depth of gender inequality across the Pacific are tragic, deplorable and breathtaking.
Amnesty International has described the level and frequency of violence against women in the Pacific as one of the gravest human rights violations in the region. According to UN Women, two out of every three Pacific women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from their male partner. Disturbingly, a number of studies indicate a prevailing belief that men are justified in perpetrating violence against their partners.
Secretary Clinton at a Gender Dialogue event in the Cook Islands. Photo courtesy of the US State Department.
At the political level, female representation in some of the region's parliaments is on a level with Saudi Arabia (ie. zero) with other parliaments doing only marginally better. PNG now has the dubious record of having the highest female representation in the region with a total of three women (out of a possible 111 seats) now in parliament after the recent elections. There was only one in the previous parliament.
This poor ratio was also reflected at last week's Pacific Islands Forum. Of the 15 Pacific leaders attending the event in the Cook Islands, only one was a woman – Australia's Julia Gillard.
However, those same leaders must have been struck by the fact that this year's Forum attracted three of the world's politically most powerful women. Aside from Julia Gillard, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the post-forum dialogue and Executive Director of UN Women and former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet was a guest speaker at the main forum meeting.
While Hillary Clinton's attendance had more to do with increasing the profile of US engagement in the Pacific than the equality of women, her presence and long-standing reputation for strongly supporting gender equality helped to reinforce the message Gillard and Bachelet gave to the forum about the need to address gender inequality across the region. Gillard is backing her words with a major funding initiative to support Pacific women's efforts to improve their political, social and economic opportunities.
But money aside, there is a very attractive potency for Pacific women in the image of these three powerful women who themselves have dealt with sexism and other anti-female behaviour in their ultimately very successful careers.