Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat
Keynote Address by Dame Meg Taylor to the International Women’s Day Breakfast

Keynote Address by Dame Meg Taylor to the International Women’s Day Breakfast,
Business and Professional Women’s Club of Port Moresby

Thursday 9 March 2018

Thank you very much for the invitation to speak at this celebration of International Women’s Day.  It is wonderful to honour this important day in my home country. 

I am really drawn to the theme for this year’s IWD - #PressforProgress.  It gets straight to the point – a clear call for action and focus in progressing gender equality. It is an undeniably important call.  Particularly when we read from the 2017 Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum that achieving gender parity is over 200 years away.  That is just too long – over 6 generations away.  We need to prove this forecast wrong, and make gender parity a reality for our daughters and grand-daughters, both in Papua New Guinea and across the Pacific Islands region. 

This morning, I would like to provide a regional perspective on gender equality, and talk about the Pacific’s successes and challenges in pursuing our collective ambition for gender equality.

I am sure many of you have heard about the Pacific Leaders’ Gender Equality Declaration – which was adopted by the Leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2012.  In this Declaration, Leaders recognized that ‘improved gender equality will make a significant contribution to creating a prosperous, stable and secure Pacific for all current and future generations’.  And Leaders recorded their ‘determination and invigorated commitment to efforts to lift the status of women in the Pacific and empower them to be active participants in economic, political and social life’

The adoption of the Gender Equality Declaration preceded my arrival at the Forum, but it is a living document, and I am dedicated to maintaining its profile and encouraging the realization of the specific commitments made under it.

[Women’s representation in public decision-making]

One of the areas highlighted in the Gender Equality Declaration is the issue of women’s participation in decision-making in public life.

It is an often cited fact that the Pacific is the region with the lowest rate of female representation in national parliaments in the world. According to the
Inter-Parliamentary Union, the world average of female elected members of national governments is 23.4%.  But in the Pacific region, the current average is 17.4%; and if we exclude Australia and New Zealand and the French territories, the rate is much lower, at 6.4%.

I was so disappointed that in the recent elections in Papua New Guinea no woman was elected – even though there was a record number of women contesting the elections. But I also take heart from significant gains in the past few years across our region, including the election in 2016 of the first female head of government of a Pacific Island country, HE Hilda Heine of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. And in the same year, Samoa saw the election of 5 women to its Parliament, and the appointment of Samoa’s first female Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon Fiame Naomi Maatafa.

I also think it that it is important to look beyond standard measures, such as rates of participation in national parliaments, and acknowledge the many other avenues for women’s participation and leadership in public life.  For example, we see more women being elected to local governments; in the past five years, there has been an increase from about 11% to almost 15% across the Pacific islands region.  This is an encouraging trend, showing increasing acknowledgement of women’s contribution to political decision-making at the local and provincial level.  This is in turn should provide leverage for women’s greater participation in government at the national level.

Our region has also seen a notable increase in recent years in women’s representation in senior management roles in the public sector of Pacific countries - an average increase from 27% to 34%. 

Just last week I was attending a major regional fisheries meeting in the Marshall Islands, and it occurred to me the powerful roles that women held in this very significant sector.  For example, in Kiribati, the senior management team of the Fisheries Department is all women.  The Fisheries Minister of Tuvalu is a woman, as is the current chair of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.  It is excellent to see such senior female representation in arguably one of the most significant sectors of our region’s economy.

I don’t think it is possible to talk about gender parity without recognizing the fundamental importance of eliminating domestic violence. I am sure that you are all aware of the reports of the disturbingly high rates of domestic violence in Papua New Guinea.  Similar rates are recorded across our region.

The Gender Equality Declaration includes a commitment by Leaders’ to take certain actions to eliminate violence against women, including the provision of services for women and girls who are experiencing violence, and the enactment of legislation to protect women from violence. Some notable progress has been made in these areas. For example, eleven Forum countries – including Papua New Guinea – have enacted domestic violence legislation, with most of these reforms having taken place since 2012.

But our region’s experience also shows that domestic violence cannot be addressed through the justice system alone.  In the Pacific, violence against women is a direct manifestation of women’s limited economic empowerment. While women of all economic circumstances are vulnerable to gender based violence, we also know that increased economic independence gives women more options and choices to leave a violent domestic partnership, to be better able to access services and to report on violence.

But of course, we also know that improving women’s economic empowerment is not a straightforward process. I was concerned to read that while an increasing number of our young women across the Pacific are benefiting from greater access to higher education, this is not necessarily translating to better employment outcomes for them.  So we must recognize the complexity of improving women’s economic status – it is not a linear process.But with this recognition, we can be creative and innovative in our collective efforts to seek women’s economic equality.  In this regard, I would like to commend the initiatives of the Business and Professional Women’s Club in providing scholarships to young women, funding entrepreneurship training and promoting advocacy campaign for policy reforms that support women in commerce.

In tracking the implementation of the Leaders Gender Equality Declaration since its adoption in 2012, we have seen some good developments contributing to the greater economic empowerment of women across the Pacific.  These include: the expansion of women’s financial inclusion and financial literacy programmes in the region; positive legal reforms to support financial inclusion; and increased numbers of women contributing to superannuation schemes for their long term financial security.

But of course we still have a lot more work to do to ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work, that women are treated on their merits; and that women can access the resources to start their own businesses.

These goals cannot be simply legislated.  While legal reform is critical, the passing of a law does not automatically lead to changes in deeply ingrained assumptions and prejudices.  We need to look deeper - as individuals, as organisations, as communities, as nations - at the attitudes and behaviours that affect women’s participation in the workforce, and economic life more generally. 

Before I conclude, I would like to talk about women’s health, and the importance of ensuring that we maintain this as a priority concern in our quest for equality.  We have seen remarkable progress in key aspects of women’s health in the past 20 years, especially in maternal and newborn health. But we cannot take these improvements for granted, and we have to be conscious of changes in our medical and health environment.

For example, in recent years, it emerged that the women of Melanesia have among the world’s highest rates of cervical cancer - at 33.3 cases per 100,000 females per year. The serious burden that this was causing to our communities prompted Leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum to prioritise this issue and take regional action. 

The Pacific is now combating cervical cancer as a region, particularly through ensuring more affordable access to the HPV vaccination for women and girls through the regional bulk procurement mechanism administered by UNICEF, and also with the support of the Asian Development Bank.  This is a really inspiring example of how the Pacific is working together to overcome a common problem.

This example of cooperation is I think a good note to close on.  As I see cooperation being essential in pressing for progress for gender parity.  Achieving gender parity will require all of our collective efforts and energy – and a true belief in and commitment to cooperation. 

This morning I give my personal and professional commitment to press for change. I am committed to pushing for gender equality in my home country – and my wider home of the Pacific islands region.  I encourage you to do so too.

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