Over 200 participants from 21 Pacific countries have been meeting over three days this week to discuss the economic standing of 4.5 million women and girls across the greater Pacific region. Despite making up half of the region’s population, women continue to be economically underrepresented due to discriminatory laws, and the social and cultural norms which place unrealistic expectations on women’s responsibilities for home and family care.
High level delegates at the event included; Dr Hilda Heine, President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands; Kourabi Nenem, Vice President of Kiribati; Mereseini Vuniwaqa, Fijian Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation; Dr Sharman Stone, Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls and; Dr Colin Tukuitonga Director General of the Pacific Community.
Over the three days of meetings, government officials and civil society representatives discussed the continuing challenges of closing the economic gender gap, increasing women’s job opportunities and breaking down the barriers that hold women from fully contributing to the Pacific economy.
In her opening statement President Heine emphasised the direct connection between the economic empowerment and Pacific resilience saying, “Where women are able to achieve their economic potential, economies grow and societies prosper; families are wealthier, and more resilient to adverse economic situations.”
The conference participants reviewed and celebrated progress made over the last two decades in the empowerment of women and girls. Access to tertiary and post-secondary education and training has increased, maternity leave in the public sector has expanded; and the number of women contributing to superannuation schemes for long-term financial security is on the rise. However, the progress in these areas has not yet translated into equal opportunities for employment or control over productive assets for women. In fact, the 2016 Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration Trends and Assessment Report highlighted that gender pay disparities have remained in place and have even widened in some countries.
The reasons for this gap are complex. They can include traditional roles that society assigns to men and women, attitudinal and structural barriers to equal participation in decision-making, obstacles to access to justice, inheritance and ownership, and long standing value systems that link masculinity with authority over women in some parts of the Pacific.
Even with the gender gap that exists, Pacific women are making an enormous contribution to Pacific Island economies. For example, in Solomon Islands, the annual turnover at the Honiara Central Market is USD 10–16 million, with women responsible for about 90% of market activity, both as bulk-buyers from farmers and as retailers. In Papua New Guinea, women are largely responsible for food production, valued at USD 55 million per year.
Against this background, closing the gender gap in Pacific Island countries and territories is both a moral and economic priority. It is estimated that the global gender gap reduces the world’s GDP by over USD 1 trillion. If the Pacific has any hope of reaching its development goals women must have the opportunity to be full and equal participants in the region’s economy.
Said President Heine: “We must show courage and strength and promote gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in everything that we do; because if we do not, what do we tell our women; our daughters, our mothers, our aunts and nieces in the remote communities?”
The 13th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women concludes today but gender issues will continue to be in focus as the 6th Meeting of Pacific Ministers for Women opens this evening. Both events are coordinated by the Pacific Community (SPC) and supported by the Australian Government which provided AU$200,000 in funding.