As tomorrow (8 March) is International Women's Day, let's take a somewhat different look at what's happening in the Pacific.
No one is denying that there are significant and sometimes frightening challenges in our region when it comes to the safety of women and girls or the recognition of the importance of equity in leadership. But there is more, way more, to the story. There are some real glimmers of hope: the 'points of light'. And, what's more, there are opportunities for these points to grow and combine to create lasting change.
In the area of female representation in decision-making, there have been some developments in the last twelve months. Earlier this year, the Port Vila municipal elections took place with five seats reserved for women on the council (out of a total of 17). A total of 43 women candidates took part in the elections. Political parties supported some and others were independents. These are small steps but that's part of what makes them more robust, as does the fact that they are apparently 'home grown'.
This is an area where the Australian aid program aims to have an impact via the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative. It is still early days for this ten-year program but it has some key aspects that give cause for optimism.
For one thing, the program has not been rolled out in a big rush. There are no quick wins here and it would be wrong to look for them. There has been a lot of preparatory work, including detailed consultation and development of tailored country programs. There is a strong focus on building new and nurturing established coalitions of actors from government, civil society and the private sector.
Drawing on work done by the Pacific Leadership Program and the Developmental Leadership Program, there is apparent recognition of the importance of working politically in this space and being able to respond iteratively as the context changes.
As with all areas of development, context is crucial. In the Pacific, one complex environment is very different from another. The most recent People's Survey conducted in Solomon Islands, commissioned by the government and RAMSI, provides a clear illustration: 91% of respondents said women make good leaders, 89% thought there should be women MPs in parliament, with 80% of that group believing there should be reserved seats for women candidates. Yet Solomon Islands does not have any more women in parliament than other Melanesian countries (currently one MP out of 50) and the upcoming elections are unlikely to change that significantly.
There is still more to be done to translate what appear to be positive responses to the idea of women in political leadership into reality. Part of what needs to be done is developing a detailed and textured understanding of the social, political, legal, cultural context in which actors such as Rhoda Sikilabu are seeking to effect change.
Another cause for optimism is recognition of the importance of knowledge-sharing and research. With increasing use of mobile technology and social media there are numerous opportunities to share knowledge to support developmental change. The Pacific Gender Justice network has knowledge-sharing as an explicit part of its mandate. But there is a need to take 'knowledge sharing' beyond a mere slogan: which knowledge is to be shared, with whom, by what means and to what end? A nuanced and textured approach to this critical area of development activity has the potential to engender real empowerment and sustainability, not only in the sphere of 'gender' but across the board.
Elsewhere, there is evidence of development practitioners recognising the need to reflect on what they do and the context in which they do it and to use rigorous research as part of that process. For example, the International Women's Development Agency recently entered into a research partnership with the ANU's State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program to examine the relationship between enhanced economic independence and the risk of violence for women in Pacific island countries. This approach is to be commended. It seeks to interrogate relatively unexplored areas with intellectual rigour to ascertain what is really going on and add to our knowledge of what works (or doesn't, or does sometimes but not always).
Embracing complexity in the 'gender' (or any other) space is a sign of maturity and we look forward to seeing how current and future navigations harness opportunity and talent to inspire change for the women (and men and children) of the Pacific.
Photo by Flickr user DFAT Photo Library.