Pacific women in parliament: A ‘pleasant surprise’

A pleasant surprise

Matilda Gillis

Politics, Society and culture | Pacific

14 September 2015

Matilda Gillis outlines the ‘transformative’ potential for culture to facilitate and promote female participation in Pacific politics.

‘Her election was seen as a ‘pleasant surprise to the nation’’[1]

There is, generally, very low participation by women in the national parliaments of Pacific Island countries. As of 2014, for example, ‘Vanuatu had no women MPs, there was just one woman MP in the Solomon Islands, and three in Papua New Guinea’.[2] Although there are exceptions to such statistics across the region,[3] and life is hardly the same for women in every Pacific nation, ‘similarities and uniformities’ nevertheless exist across the region [4] Low female representation in parliament constitutes an overall trend in twenty-one Pacific Island countries.[5] It is not simply ‘the region with the lowest proportion of female MPs, but it is also improving the slowest’.[6]

This is a matter worthy of attention. As Wood rightly says, while ‘gender equity alone provides a compelling case’,[7] there is also evidence from around the world that suggests that there are broader benefits to having more women in parliament. Countries with more women MPs have, for example, tended to experience less corruption and have demonstrated subsequent ‘improvements in economic performance’.[8] Female leaders compel positive change in gender perceptions,[9] and, importantly, lead to the empowerment of women in day-to-day society. It is, of course, also inherently important for the health of a democracy that ‘all members of society’s varied (and sometimes competing) interests are considered in decision-making bodies at all levels.’[10] Women’s voices need to be heard and ‘men-only legislatures’ cannot simply ‘look after the interests of society as a whole’.[11] A legitimate and representative parliament must have female decision-makers.

Addressing the Issue: what has been done?

Explanations for the low representation of women in Pacific parliaments fall into two categories: i) electoral and political; and, ii) cultural and structural. The two are connected and many of the apparently explanatory electoral and political factors in fact flow from the socio-economic, structural position of women in Pacific society. With this in mind, attempts to address the issue have taken place on both a formal, theoretical level and on a practical level. This section will focus on the more notable attempts to change the situation, and investigate their relative successes.

Women in the region have, prima facie, ‘the same legal right as men to participate in the process of democracy’.[12] They have, for example, ‘the right to vote, as recognised in [nearly all of] their countries’ constitutions’ and, by and large, ‘an equal right to seek elected office’.[13] Many countries in the region have also endorsed political equality by their ratification of international legal instruments such as, for example, CEDAW.[14] Ratifying a convention may, however, be only a ‘hollow commitment’,[15] giving countries a false sense of legitimacy. It is also questionable whether Pacific women truly have a ‘right to vote’ when husbands and men often actually take, or at least control that vote.[16] But overall these do represent at least formal and legal attempts to change the situation and reflect a desire to meet international norms and expectations in respect of women’s political equality.

There have also been significant practical attempts at rectification. The French Territories, for example, have introduced parity laws, which had a huge impact in both New Caledonia and French Polynesia.[17] These laws require ‘roughly equal representation of women and men on the eligible lists’, thereby not guaranteeing equality of representation but providing ‘a field upon which women can compete with men’.[18] Additionally, ‘reserved seats’ have been introduced in some countries, where a particular number of seats are reserved for women.[19] In addition to Bougainville’s reserved seat system for women,[20] for example, Samoa unanimously introduced a constitutional amendment in 2013, guaranteeing at least 5 women (10%) in the Parliament.[21]

These attempts are significant in their signaling of the importance and the worthiness of the issue in the region. The methods are undoubtedly useful.[22] They have increased female parliamentary representation and the parity laws in particular appear actually ground-breaking. But these measures are not without criticism. Reserved seating, for example, has been said to ‘set a glass ceiling for women’,[23] preventing them from electoral seats beyond a small number of reserved seats. Further, they are subject to the more usual objections quotas face in terms of the potential consequence of meritorious men missing out and there remains ‘considerable resistance to the introduction of quotas’ despite those small gains.[24] The measures which have been proposed and implemented do also remain confined to particular countries and, in their very particularity and perhaps superficiality, lack the more holistic approach that may be required for more meaningful, lasting change.

There have also been more minor, ground-roots attempts to change the situation,[25] such as candidate training,[26] building networks for women,[27] research programs in Vanuatu,[28] and the establishment of women’s affairs offices in some countries.[29] These have had varying degrees of success at a localised level,[30] but have largely been confined to the realm of civil society. The problem of achieving increased parliamentary representation for women requires more structural measures to be effective.

Rethinking the Issue: a Proposal for Change

Creating a list of measures to empower women and increase their level of representation in Pacific Island parliaments is a relatively easy task. Every Pacific nation should: introduce a proportional representation electoral system, pass parity laws, give money to women candidates, educate men to be feminists, eliminate the practice of vote-buying and have public funding of campaigns to ‘reduce the influence of special interest groups’.[31] But measures depend for their legitimacy and effectiveness on being accepted (or at least tolerated) by their societies and such far-reaching, ‘invasive’, reforms are unlikely to be so tolerated by the Pacific Islands nations (or, realistically, by most countries worldwide).

This article proposes another way. There is an argument that ‘cultural’ dialogue in Pacific society, which emphasises men as leaders, may be largely a construction brought about by colonisation. There is evidence that women had strong representation in leadership roles prior to that period.[32] Sales and Teakeni, for example, persuasively point to historical evidence of women as chiefs and powerful leaders on each island of the Solomon Islands. They say that ‘part of the work of increasing participation by women in decision-making is to engage in a process of remembering the traditional leadership roles of women’.[33] This idea is crucial to addressing the issue of female parliamentary participation.

Collective memory is powerful. It forms the foundation of every society in its institutions and in the beliefs of its people. ‘Memory’ can justify the imposition of particular measures and beliefs. It can be actively informed and constructed by formal methods such as education, or in day-to-day life through public memorials. For example, we revere war heroes in a society, not because we witnessed their heroic acts, but because we learn about them and see them as such in public memorials. If the ‘indigenous’ culture of women as leaders could be emphasised and promoted into the collective memory in Pacific Island societies, women would be empowered in a meaningful and entrenched way. The structural barriers discussed above would be deeply and persuasively challenged and women would more easily be seen, appreciated and elected as leaders. Constructing collective memory is not, of course, a short-term measure. But it is an important and potentially transformational one.



[1]Jean Drage, “The Exception, Not the Rule: A Comparative Analysis of Women’s Political Activity in Pacific Island Countries,” Pacific Studies 18 (1995): 65.

[2] Wood, “Why Can’t Women Win?,” 2. See also the IPU table set out in Zetlin, “Women in Parliaments,” 255. See, eg, Campbell Cooney, “All Female Candidates Miss Out in Vanuatu Election,” ABC News, November 2, 2012, accessed 17 May 2015 <>. See, eg, ABC News, “Cook Islands’ snap election left women behind: advocacy group,” ABC News Online, May 15, 2014, accessed 17 May 2015 <>. See also ABC News, “Australian women MPs mentor Pacific women to boost representation,” ABC News Online, July 21, 2014, accessed 16 May 2015 <>.

[3] See, eg, the French territories as discussed in Zetlin, “Women in Parliaments,” 254.

[4] Drage, “The Exception, Not the Rule,” 70.

[5] Ibid., 61.

[6] Wood, “Why Can’t Women Win?,” 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. See generally David Dollar, Raymond Fisman and Roberta Gatti, “Are women really the ‘fairer’ sex? Corruption and women in government,” Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organisation 46 (2001): 423-429. See, eg, Lucie Bargel, Stephanie Guyon and Isabelle Savelina Rettig, Assessment of the Application of the ‘Parity Law’ in New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna (New Caledonia: Secretariat of the Pacific Community, April-June 2007) 4-5.

[9] Wood, “Why Can’t Women Win?,” 2.

[10] Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, A Woman’s Place is in the House – the House of Parliament: a Regional Study Presented in Give Reports (Fiji: Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, 2006) XV.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Drage, “The Exception, Not the Rule,” 70. See also Pacific Women in Politics, “What we do,” accessed 18 May 2015 <>.

[13] Ibid. See generally Stephen Levine, Pacific Power Maps: An Analysis of the Constitutions of Pacific Island Polities (Honolulu: Pacific Islands Studies Center for Asian and Pacific Studies Working Paper Series, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, 1983). See, eg, in Vanuatu as discussed by Donald, “Slo slo,” 50.

[14] See United Nations, “Signatories and Parties to CEDAW,” United Nations Treaty Collection, accessed 20 May 2015 <>.

[15] Paul Carrington, “Enforcing International Corrupt Practices Law,” Michigan Journal of International Law 32 (March 2010): 142.

[16] Scales and Teakeni, “Election of Women in Solomon Islands,” 73. See also See Wood, “Why Can’t Women Win?,” 9.

[17] Zetlin, “Women in Parliaments in the Pacific Region,” 257-8.

[18] Alan Berman, “The Law on Gender Parity in Politics in France and New Caledonia: a Window into the Future or More of the Same?,” Oxford University Comparative Law Forum 2 (2005) <> .

[19] Ballington and Matland. Political Parties and Special Measures, 13.

[20] See Zetlin, “Women in Parliaments in the Pacific Region,” 256.

[21] Alan Ah Mu, “Samoa Parliament Unanimously Approves Women’s Reserve Seat Bill,” Pacific Islands Report, June 22, 2013, accessed 16 May 2014 <>. See also Zetlin, “Women in Parliaments in the Pacific Region,” 263.

[22] Ballington and Matland. Political Parties and Special Measures, 12.

[23] Ibid., 13.

[24] See Zetlin, “Women in Parliaments in the Pacific Region,” 253.

[25] See generally Pacific Parliamentary Partnerships. “Activities,” accessed 18 May 2015 <> .

[26] See Wood, “Why Can’t Women Win?,” 11-12. See also Ballington and Matland. Political Parties and Special Measures, 4-6. See also Catherine Wilson, “Few Pacific Women in Politics,” Papua New Guinea Post Courier, March 06, 2013. See, eg, Pacific Women in Politics, “PNG Women Debate National Issues with Vigour at First Ever Practice Parliament for Women,” April 26, 2012, accessed 18 May 2015 <>.

[27] See, eg, Wood, “Why Can’t Women Win?,” 1-2 .

[28] See Duncan, “Slo slo,” 53.

[29] Drage, “The Exception, Not the Rule,” 79.

[30] See, eg, Wood, “Why Can’t Women Win?,” 12.

[31] Ballington and Matland. Political Parties and Special Measures, 10-11.

[32] See Zetlin, “Women in Parliaments in the Pacific Region,” 257.

[33] Scales and Teakeni, “Election of Women in Solomon Islands,” 78.

Back to Top
Join the APP Society

Leave your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Press Ctrl+C to copy