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.