Last week I attended the opening of the Mock Parliament debate about Constituency Development Funds.
It was great to see so many women in the Parliament Chamber.
As a representative of one of Solomon Islands Development Partners and a guest in Solomon Islands over the past two years, I have attending many meetings focusing on development policy and issues. I have often been struck by how few women, particularly Solomon Islands women, are present at these meetings.
The Solomon Islands National Development Strategy Policy on Gender Equality is to “Advance gender equality and enhance women’s development ensuring the active contribution and meaningful participation of both Solomon Islands women and men in all spheres, and at all levels, of development and decision making”.
The European Union supports the Solomon Islands NDS and shares this strong commitment to promoting equality.
I have started counting how many men and women are present at meetings, and also made a guess as to how many are Solomon Islanders and how many are ex-pats.
This is not a very scientific study, but the numbers paint a clear picture. Out of a total of 352 participants, Solomon Island women are out numbered more than four to one by Solomon Island men in these meetings, with the ratio for ex-pats being less unbalanced at 1.6 men to every woman.
SI men 154
ex-pat men 99
SI women 37
ex-pat women 62
SI male to female ratio 4.16
ex-pat male to female ratio 1.60
So in all these meeting where we are discussing policy and development in Solomon Islands, women are underrepresented, and their perspectives, knowledge and interests are not included to a sufficient degree.
Looking across the levels of governance systems in Solomon Islands, there is a clear shortage of women’s participation. In the nine national parliaments to date, there have only been two women MPs. Of the 23 Permanent Secretaries currently serving, only three are women. All nine Provincial Premiers are men, while there are some women Provincial Members. I am told Councils of Chiefs are dominated by men.
I don’t have any figures for other constitutional post holders, but it also seems to lack a woman’s perspective. At senior levels in the civil service, this pattern persists.
It is often said that this is merely a reflection of Solomon Islands culture, and I don’t disagree with that. But culture is always changing with the times, and culture is not always right. As an example, at the time when my home country, Ireland, joined the European Union in 1973, Ireland had a law saying that any woman who was a Civil Servant had to resign when she got married. At that time, people in my country argued that was our culture.
To join the EU Ireland had to repeal that law, and assure equal pay and equal terms to everyone, all women and all men. Our culture has changed so much in the 40 years since then, that in three out of the last four presidential elections, a woman have been elected President by popular vote.
This demonstrates that in changing culture, leadership and legislation both have a role in promoting cultural change. For example, temporary special measures can help promote some gender balance among elected representatives, at national and provincial level.
These measures should be temporary, to promote change, after which they should no longer be needed. If more female MPs are elected in 2014, this would allow the Prime Minister after the next election to demonstrate leadership, but appointing capable and competent women to senior Ministerial portfolios, as well as Permanent Secretaries.
The Civil Service Commission also has a role to play, in ensuring there is a balance of women and men appointed to the civil service, especially at more senior levels, where the imbalance currently seems to be greater.
In the current draft Constituency Development Fund regulations, the Constituency Development Committee includes a woman’s representative and a youth representative. This simple measure is a good example of leadership and regulation promoting the views and voices of group who might otherwise struggle to be heard.
Personally, I do not believe that we need 50-50 representation of men and women all the time. But I do believe passionately that we need a balance of women and men. When I meet with the heads of the other development organisations in Solomon Islands, the majority – currently – are women.
In fact the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, UNDP, SPC, the New Zealand and Australian Development programmes are all headed by women, who do just as good a job, and are just as capable as their male counterparts. RAMSI too has welcomed its first female Special Coordinator. Having women in these leading roles brings a broader perspective to all our work, and I believe improves the policies and decisions that come out of the meetings and discussions.
The European Union has a number of projects promoting gender equality in partnership with local and international organisations, including Solomon Islands National Council of Women, The Church of Melanesia Trust Board under Christian Care Centre on the project “Men wea waka fo men fo stopping violence”, SPC and UN Women as well as the community theatre group, Stages of Change. In all our other projects and programs, gender equality is always included.
Gender equality is not a woman’s issue. It is an equality issue that affects every one of us. Equality is not a zero-sum game, where the gains of one group come at the expense of another group. It is a positive-sum game, where greater equality results in benefits for everyone in our community.
Ensuring Solomon Islands women area equally represented in these discussions, is not just about how many women MPs are elected to Parliament. It is about how women are represented at all levels of governance and decision making. At the village level, throughout the civil service, as Permanent Secretaries in the Line Ministries, as community leaders and policy makers, as Ministers, Prime Ministers and Governor Generals of Solomon Islands.
Mr. Eoghan Walsh is Chargé d’affaires of the European Union in Solomon Islands.
By Mr Eoghan Walsh