Last week I was in Tahiti (yes, I know) for PIPSA, the biannual Pacific Islands Political Science Association conference, to discuss China's role in the region and the influence Pacific island governments have in negotiating Chinese financing (more on that research in a forthcoming post).

An important theme running through the conference was women and politics in the Pacific. As has been noted on The Interpreter before, the lack of female political representation around the region (including Australia) is a concern. But during the PIPSA sessions I was particularly struck by the promising initiatives and research underway, and by the quality of female Pacific voices represented.

Number of women MPs in Pacific national parliaments

Country

Number of MPs 

Number of women

%

Cook Islands

24

3

12.5%

Federated States of Micronesia

14

0

0.0%

Fiji

103

13

12.6%

Kiribati

46

4

8.7%

Marshall Islands

33

1

3.0%

Nauru

19

1

5.3%

Niue

20

3

6.7%

Palau

16

0

0.0%

PNG

111

3

2.7%

Samoa

49

2

4.1%

Solomon Islands

50

1

2.0%

Tonga

28

1

3.6%

Tuvalu

15

1

6.7%

Vanuatu

52

0

0.0%

Table from pacificwomen.org. All statistics current as at 1 February 2014, from Inter-Parliamentary Union

Two issues kept appearing that got me thinking: quotas and political constituencies.

Quotas are controversial. I wish we didn't need them, but if there's any real progress to be made on female representation in political decision-making, they are probably necessary. French Polynesia and New Caledonia have them, and many spoke of the difference this is making to the perceptions of female roles in society. More women in political power leads to more discussion of gender issues within the community.

Dorosday Dhressen, Director of Department Women's Affairs in Vanuatu, also spoke encouragingly of the impact a pilot initiative in Port Vila is already having. With hard-fought lobbying on her part, the Vanuatu parliament unanimously passed legislation mandating a 30-34% temporary special quota for women's representation in Municipal Councils. This will apply to all municipal councils in Vanuatu for four terms (16 years). Importantly, the Department (through the WiSDM coalition) is providing ongoing support and training for the elected women to help them navigate the challenges that come with holding office.

Quotas and parity laws are obviously not without drawbacks and do not in themselves create miracles. Leadership roles still tend to be filled by men. Women are corralled into departments of social affairs or education. They are often not re-elected for a second term.

The importance of women needing to develop local constituencies was suggested by a number of speakers. In many communities, politics is seen as the realm of men. In some places, women are actively discouraged from seeking political roles. Participating in politics first at a lower level of government (town, mayoral, municipal) is one way for women to build constituencies and demonstrate to their communities that they can do it. Over time, this could also address the concern some have with quotas not being a true reflection of merit.

(Lynda Tabuya, the president of the People's Democratic Party contesting the upcoming elections in Fiji developed her own constituency amongst the PIPSA participants through her impressive, articulate and measured contributions. She is one Pacific female leader to look out for. In fact, a number of political parties contesting the September election have female candidates and leaders.)

Starting at a local level isn't always necessary; some women have obviously been successful at the national level. But it is certainly something governments, aid agencies and NGOs should think about when developing initiatives to increase female political participation. The initial blockage is often at the local government level. In Samoa, for example, the generally good gender outcomes across education and economic participation haven't yet translated into political representation. Initial results from a research team investigating factors preventing women from entering electoral politics in Samoa indicate village councils and churches may be deterring female participation.

The discussion at PIPSA was characterised by a desire to learn from each other, to see what is working in different Pacific islands and why. With the issue increasingly on people's radar (including the Australian Foreign Minister's), the signs in the Pacific are promising even if there is a long way to go.