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'Be bold for change'

AS an unassuming member of our staff who quietly carries out his role as the deputy team leader of a unit at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Sakiasi Ditoka's decision to officiate at a small gathering marking International Women's Day (IWD) was a pleasant surprise.

Pleasant for many reasons. This was a role we, his colleagues, did not normally see him in. It was also a pleasant surprise because we were seeing a male workmate speak from the heart about a societal scourge related to the observance of IWD, and that is, violence against women.

For me, Mr Ditoka embodied the 2017 International Women's Day theme of "be bold for change". Having an indigenous male speak so eloquently on the issue was refreshing. Before joining the Forum Secretariat Mr Ditoka was a soldier.

He spoke of the shock he experienced alongside former soldier colleagues, in a workshop where the facilitator read out a "long list of bone-chilling acts of violence against women that some men in Fiji think is their entitlement".

At the time his colleagues were silenced by the different types of violence that women endure. He characterised it as "a dark, shady reality that nobody seems to want to own up to". Another area Mr Ditoka touched on was masculinity, how boys and men in our islands are socialised to avoid showing weakness or emotion.

This father of five daughters and one son asked a pertinent question for all of us, when considering a response to the prevalence of violence against women, "Where does one start with these things?"

"For if we think about it, women literally run the world from birth to death. In whatever context you care to think about it, it remains true. We have so many reasons to celebrate our women. However the spectre of our society's injustice continue to hang over their heads. Violence against women is only but one of the issues," he said.

Forum Secretariat staff members were also privileged to hear from the 2016 Sportswoman of the Year Mere Rodan, who advocated for increased inclusion of girls and women with disability in everyday life, and strengthened support for the Pacific Framework for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which was endorsed by the Forum Leaders in late 2016.

Mrs Rodan shared a story of how the community she lived in decided to construct pathways that would allow her to leave her home in her wheelchair. Until then, her husband had been carrying her for some 200 metres to the roadside, for four years.

Mrs Rodan also shared her love for table tennis. She joined the sport after a targeted campaign by the International Table Tennis Federation they called "Smash Down Barriers" — it was through this inclusive program that she was able to find something she loved, and won a prestigious award for it.

To mark International Women's Day this year, the United Nations chose the theme "Women's Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work". It is a theme that resonates with me.

Both speakers spoke from the heart, touching on two cross-cutting issues which are likely to feature when observing International Women's Day: whether we speak of the prevalence of violence against women or the economic empowerment of women, underlining such discussions will be the issue of inclusion (no one must be left behind in our deliberations and actions) and cultural norms which justify the perpetual nature of human behaviour that violate people and their basic human right to a healthy and productive life.

Our values and faith play a critical role in breaking down barriers to inclusive and equitable island societies; respecting all human beings equally will significantly impact our collective progress.

I agree with Mr Ditoka's reference to a largely absent voice of the churches in the issue of violence against women.

Quoting the Bible, 2 Corinthians 12:10, he suggested "maybe we should learn more of that type of strength and preaching more of it from our pulpits" for "there is quiet strength to weakness, a steely resolve in meekness and humility".

As a Pacific woman, mother, and secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, I am driven to advancing gender equality across the region. This is also something that forum leaders are deeply committed to.

We have a long way to go. Across our region social and cultural norms, standards and expectations lead to differential treatment, violence, job segregation, limited employment opportunities, workplace harassment and overall lower economic, social and political status for women.

I believe the key to sustainable and resilient development for our communities is the economic empowerment of our women.

When young women are empowered they are free to make their own decisions. Free to live a healthy and productive life. Able to pursue ongoing education opportunities. They become leaders among their people.

The flow on effects are enormous. Increased female labour force participation leads to faster economic growth. Evidence shows that when greater shares of household income are controlled by women, then beneficial spending on children in those households improves.

Today, I challenge you to push for change in our communities that will lead to greater economic empowerment for our women. Give equal pay for equal work. End the gender wage gap. Influence attitudes and break down behavioural barriers that suppress women's participation in the workplace.

Ensure schools and workplaces are safe and productive environments for women and girls. And finally, encourage the mothers, sisters and daughters around you to always think big and then get behind them and support the pursuit of their dreams.

Take up the challenge and be bold for change. The Pacific region will be stronger for your efforts.

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