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Gender and Politics - The Case of Small Island Nations

 

Motarilavoa Hilda Lini

Director, Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, Fiji

 

On August 30, 1999, the international community witnessed the democratic confirmation of people’s aspiration for the independence of Timor Lorosa’e.

 

This historic victory was achieved with collective people’s participation involving men, women, old and young and children.

 

Today, as we map out the first steps of nation building process, we can use the same principles, institutions and strategies applied by the liberation movement.

 

The principles normally applied by any liberation movement are;

 

All we have to do is identify aspects that need to be strengthened to meet today's development needs for rebuilding Timor Lorosa’e.

 

I believe that the Tibar Conference on Reconstruction of East Timor, held in June 2000, has already identified policy directions for each development sector including gender balance planning.

 

I also believe that the implementation strategy from the East Timor Women’s Congress held in June 2000, “Platform for Action for the Advancement of Women of Timor Lorosa’e”, is now being integrated into gender-responsive policies, legal frameworks, and mainstream development planning, for budget allocation.

 

This is being co-ordinated by UNTAET Gender Affairs in consultation with East Timor Women’s Network (REDE).

 

Furthermore, His Excellency Xanana Gusmão, has also re-affirmed in his New Years message the peoples right to live in peace and harmony and his commitment to serve the people.

 

With these efforts already in the process all I can offer is to share with this forum some experiences both from Vanuatu and the Pacific Islands with the hope that there may be elements that we can learn from.

 

Firstly, the Vanuatu experience.

Vanuatu faced a similar situation in terms of post-colonial issues including gender issues seen from the perspective of a liberation movement. The only women’s programs during the colonial period were cooking and sewing.

 

When the liberation movement won a landslide majority in the 1979 election, the Women’s Wing of the Movement co-ordinated a meeting of all women’s groups and all political factions. That first National Women’s Conference established the Vanuatu National Council of Women and at the same time came up with a Plan of Action prior to independence.

 

The National Council consisted of 13 Island Councils of Women. Its role was to advise all decision making bodies on matters relating to women/gender issues.

 

The Women’s Council selected women who served at these decision making bodies and they had to report back to the Council.

 

The Women’s Council also ensured that women participated in the drafting of the Constitution, the Criminal Code, and contributed to major laws such as the Employment Act, the Decentralisation Act and the Land Act.

 

The Women’s Council identified areas that needed priority training of women, gave career talks to students and guided them through training overseas to ensure positive results.

 

Local level training was coordinated by the Women’s Council through the 13 regions of Vanuatu.

 

The Women’s Affairs Office was established under the responsibility of the Prime Minister for priority attention. The role of the Office was to formulate policies and to implement policies regarding women/gender as identified by the Women’s Council.

 

Women were nominated to Local Government Council to reacquire skills needed in decision making. The Council of Women gave them training on their role as women’s representatives in the Local Government Councils.

 

Every five years a review was made. After 10 years of independence, a review proposed that a gender planner be appointed to the National Planning Office to oversee the integration of all gender issues into mainstream planning.

 

Women’s Affairs became responsible only for policy coordination.

 

The Council of Women which had grown from 13 island councils to 77 area councils became the implementers of programs.

 

The Council of Women continued as a decision making body, providing advocacy and ensuring that government makes gender responsive decisions and policies.

 

However, for 7 years after independence there was no woman elected to the highest decision making body in Vanuatu, the National Parliament.

 

This reflected the lack of women in politics not only in the Pacific but also worldwide.

 

In the Pacific women are the managers of families, backbone of the churches and communities, the majority of teachers and nurses, and 50% of farmers. However, political decision making processes are dominated by men.

 

There are few women in Pacific parliaments. While Australia and New Zealand have higher proportions of women in political office, women report lack of support and attitudes in parliament and media which undermine their political activity.

 

In spite of the growth in democratic political systems gender equality in political decision making is far from being achieved.

 

Women have valuable perspectives and experiences to contribute to both the substance and process of decision making, both as political office holders and community leaders.

 

Women’s political strength lies in their sense of justice, honesty and humanity.

 

In small island states there have been difficulties in translating the international and regional gender development policy frameworks into action.

 

In most countries political parties have a strong influence on the composition of parliaments and governments. Political parties in general do not provide adequate support to women’s entry into national and local election processes. Culture and tradition are often used as excuses for excluding women from candidacy and political office.

 

The prevailing male dominated political environment of confrontation, harsh competition, closed male networks and excessively long hours of work, constitute additional barriers to women’s participation in politics.

 

Women’s poverty, burden of roles, higher illiteracy, lack of access to educational opportunities and information technologies are further barriers to women’s participation in public spheres.

 

I hope that Timor Lorosa’e after having fought so hard, so long, with so many human costs, will not repeat the same mistakes that other small island countries have made. This is to ignore women’s participation in all development.

 

Let the women of Timor Lorosa’e be partners in decisions, policy making, planning and budgeting, implementation and monitoring and mediation in conflict resolution.

Give women of Timor Lorosa’e a chance to become active partners in rebuilding Timor Lorosa’e.

 

They have proved that they can do it just like they helped to win a 24 year-old war. The challenge then is with you to define the strategy.

 

As a new nation, the choice is yours to make a difference.