The gender agenda: Clinton, Gillard and Bachelet at the Pacific Islands Forum

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and UN Women’s Executive Director Michelle Bachelet were in the Cook Islands for the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum last week.  Among their agendas, they pledged to make ‘gender’ a policy priority, apparently with the full agreement of Pacific (male) leaders, to make a real difference to the status and lives of women in the Pacific.

Well, they have certainly their work cut out for them.

As was no doubt brought into sharp relief when Gillard sat down (albeit briefly due to her quick return to Oz following deaths of aussie soldiers in Afghanistan) with the 14 or 15 other male leaders at the Forum, women leaders in Pacific politics are rare birds indeed.

Pacific women formally attached to politics (excluding those in NZ and Australia) totals about 3-5%  – compared  to the rest of the world at about 20%.  Women in the Pacific are frequently victims of domestic violence and often live in an environment where violence is normalised.  (It is thought around 70% of women in Papua New Guinea will suffer abuse in their lifetime and a 2010 Amnesty report noted among other depressing statistics that in many Pacific countries two thirds of women have been abused).
Prime Minister Gillard’s announcement of a massive aid commitment in AusAID funding for a 10-year program to empower women in the Pacific region, should, I think, be applauded on the whole, but I’m not sure why the discourse around gender equality in the Pacific must always be tied to economic progress and not simply raising the status of Pacific women as inherent and actual equals to men.  Speaking at the Forum Gillard said, “It’s not just about fairness to women, it’s also about economic development and empowerment.” In another interview she iterated that the gender agenda was all about “unlocking development”.

Why can’t it just be about fairness to women?  Why is it embarrassing or unpersuasive to say gender equality is simply about recognizing equality between men and women?  Why do these white women leaders (mostly from the other side of the world) feel they have to argue for ‘economic development’ over and above  meeting basic human rights objectives, to affect change?  I don’t know how far we can get pushing ‘economics’ and ‘development’ if at its base a society remains sexist and disrespectful of women.


6 comments on “The gender agenda: Clinton, Gillard and Bachelet at the Pacific Islands Forum

  1. ryankf says:

    Fair questions Sarah, but isn’t this the perfect example of attaching one issue to another to gain awareness for the former? If i had to venture a guess i’d say ‘women’s right’ or even ‘human rights’ as issues don’t have much traction in the Pacific, or the Asia-Pacific for that matter. But ‘economic development’ sure does. Aren’t these women leaders being pragmatic?
    And with Hilary probably on her way out of the State Department after this year wouldn’t this be her big chance to really push world leaders on issues of women’s rights, unless she thinks a softer approach is more productive.
    Assuming women’s rights as an issue is most prominent in areas where men have the greatest percentage of influence does it not make sense to engage those men on a level that motivates them. This gets us back to something that annoys me to no end – the idea in IR that things would be better if people just acted nicer. Restraint, altruism, and the like are buzz words for what people and states “should” do.
    The U.S./AUS/NZ may have one value system about women, human rights, human security and environmental security while Iran/China/North Korea may have another. Universality is a myth, at least for the time being. Leaders and states will never be receptive to hearing from others how they should act, regardless of how convinced the opposition is of the rightness of their position.
    Since in the real world of experience neither men, women, or states always do what they “should” we are left with the regrettable option of engaging people and states where they are at – regardless of how backwards, behind the curve, or out of touch they may be.

    • sarahchan30 says:

      Nah, I’ve always maintained that at their very base norms result from morally inspired “shoulds”, and besides I think we are going to be seeing more, not less, of Hillary C. It’s not about acting ‘nicer’; it’s about recognising the inherent equality of men and women. Say what you will, but to me, universally, that should just be a no brainer. I agree however that if great white western champions of women like Gillard and Clinton can make a difference to the current sad lot of Pacific women then it should be applauded. I’m just sorry that that route might have to be manipulative or circuitous.

      • aidangnoth says:

        Ryan’s argument that the desire by these leaders to couple gender equality with development as a case and point example of attaching an issue to get greater attention is a compelling one, yet at the same time I agree with Sarah that gender equality is such a massive issue these days that it doesn’t really need to gain traction off other norms of development (turns out, I quite like sitting on the fence). However, I do have some points to make that hopefully you can elaborate on Sarah, as I would like to know if I’ve simply misinterpreted you or not.

        I believe it’s not so much a fact that gender equality is coupled with ‘development’ to sell it, rather gender equality is an integral part of development. One of the key indicators for how developed a state is, is the measure of gender equality within it, and looking over your argument Sarah it seems that you are annoyed that this should be so (or at least that to get gender equality you have to sell it through development rather than just selling it as a truism alone).

        My question is why shouldn’t gender equality be intrinsically linked as a measure of development ?Wouldn’t you rather people strived for gender equality in the same manner as they do development? As Ryan said, development is such a large issue these days with so many states concerned about it, surely linking these two concepts together is a win for the discourse?

        You state at the end that coupling the two concepts may be manipulative or circuitous. But is this so?Even if you disagree with packaging gender equality in development rhetoric, you’d be hard pressed to actually separate the two institutions. Not only is gender equality a measure of development, but numerous studies have found links between gender equality in things such as education and employment and economic growth (see for instance Klasen, S. (2000): Does Gender Inequality Reduce Growth and Development? Evidence from Cross-Country Regressions. Or Seguino, S. (2000) Gender inequality and economic growth: a cross-country analysis). The fact that gender equality can contribute to development, to me and I’m sure you’ll agree, is a non issue. The two ideas compliment each other. Gender equality increases development, and development increases gender equality.

        I feel like your qualm is with this need to attach the two concepts together, as if selling “gender equality because men and women are equal” is enough and shouldn’t need development in order to be pushed. But to me, that’s like saying that “nuclear weapons are bad because they kill people” should be enough to push nuclear non-proliferation. True, nuclear weapons kill people. But that’s not enough to stop people using them, nor is the whole story. Attaching nuclear non-proliferation to environmental concerns isn’t being manipulative or circuitous, as these weapons pose very real risks to the environment- so why do you feel attaching gender equality to development is? While “men and women are equal and therefore we should have gender equality” is a fine statement in itself, it is immensely difficult to get other cultures to agree with this argument without reinforcing it. By coupling it with development and showing how women can contribute to economic development just as men can, we are backing up our argument that women and men are equals.

  2. sarahchan30 says:

    Hmm. First, I agree with you that gender and development are intrinsically tied. Of course women’s equality with men (aka gender equality – i don’t know why we don’t just say ‘women’ in most instances since i have rarely heard of a case in which the latter wasn’t actually referring to the former) in the economic sphere is important not just for fairness of opportunity between the sexes but also because countries in which equality is strong generally do ‘better’ in economic, social and development spaces. This is agreed.
    However, the view i was putting across is perhaps a step before where you are at. I cannot help but find it absurd that equality between men and women is simply not a given in any culture. Yes it may be ” immensely difficult to get other cultures to agree with this argument” but i have never come across a decent argument against equality of the sexes (bar physical strength – but I daily thank the men of this world for building all the roads and bridges! ;)). I am actually a bit shocked and amazed that I even have to defend this position to my peers’ recognising basic equality between women and men (your so called “massive issue”) just should not be that outrageous. It’s pretty straightforward. But I guess I’m just simple folk avoiding the ambiguities that apparently exist – yes the fact that nuclear weapons are destructive should in my view be enough to dissuade one from making or using them. How can that not be the “whole story”? And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t compare women to nuclear weapons, though having said that, you might secretly be onto something there!!

  3. aidangnoth says:

    Haha okay, what I was getting at was not that there are any decent arguments against equality, just that for some (namely states) a fact or philosophical argument mightn’t be enough to act upon and therefore they need other things to back it up. I was never implying that you were wrong in your position, just to clarify. The point I was attempting to make (not so succulently) was that while ‘women and men are equal and therefore there should be equality’ is a perfectly valid point to make, obviously some states don’t consider this to be vital or important enough to act upon it straight away (or unfortunately in some cases at all).

    The nuclear analogy was not a comparison of women and armaments, rather, the way in which arguments for norms or movements are presented. To say that women are equal to men and therefore there should be equality is a fine and logical argument to make, as is saying nuclear weapons are bad because they kill people. However neither of these seem persuasive enough to make people act, as evidenced by the world (?), and therefore there is a need to shed light on the rest of the context (that nuclear weapons kill indiscriminately, or that there ARE obvious and abhorrent gender inequalities within the world which should be rectified).

    But perhaps as you said, we are on two different levels of the argument. I agree with your point sincerely and it is unfortunate that the practitioners do not act on the fact or moral assertions alone. However I also feel that in reality packaging gender equality in development terms is a plus for the norm as it shows these practicioners not only why it is so, but why it’s important to act upon.

  4. sarahchan30 says:

    I was pretty much just being cheeky in the last post. Maybe raising the profile of women in the econonmic and development spaces will make for less sexist societies just by fact of women being more visible and more valued if they are seen to be contributers to economies. I was just pointing out that its a shame that we cannot take equality between men and women as a given when it just seems to me to be obvious. That’s all.

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