“Women are half of the world’s population, and half of its potential” – Ahlam, Belgian Youth Activist


On Tuesday 29th October 2019, the Vanuatu Civil Society Influencing Network (VCSIN) hand delivered a petition to the Vanuatu parliament calling for Temporary Special Measures (TSM) for reserve seats for 50% women in Parliament in 2020.

Contrary to what you may hear on social media, the call for a 50% quota is not being spearheaded by a ‘foreign NGO’. While many have been quick to accuse Oxfam, who has been supporting the ‘Vot Woman’ campaign led by VSCIN under it’s Governance, Leadership and Accountability program, of ‘political interference’ and for encouraging ‘foreign ideologies’, the petition originally came from an outcome statement derived from the Vanuatu Women’s Leadership Influencing forum held in 2018.

The aim of the forum was to find a way forward to improve women’s participation in Parliament and was held over two days in Mele. More than 130 women leaders, including 72 Presidents of the Vanuatu National Council of Women (VNCW) from throughout the country, attended.

The Vanuatu National Council of Women facilitated the forum and developed an action plan and resolutions, which included the petition calling for a 50% quota of equal representation in parliament. VNCW later presented the petition to then Acting Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Nirua, who said that the government supports women “….but when we see only ten women support VNCW, it does not give us confidence to see where we can go to achieve your aim.”

Oxfam may have supported VNCW to hold the forum but it is misleading to say that Oxfam has been trying to influence Vanuatu’s politics. It is a reality that across the globe, many women’s movements and national machineries are supported by donor organizations to roll out their activities and programs.

It’s not just women’s organizations – even our Family Protection Unit’s budget is heavily supported by Australian Aid to provide services for gender-based violence. If anything, Oxfam is actually supporting the National Sustainable Development Goals under the society pillar.

Reserve seats requires a holistic approach and is an educational process

On another note, to ask for 50% reserved seats for women in the parliament is a bold move, particularly given the current status of women in parliament – which is zero. In fact Vanuatu is one of three countries in the world without any female representation. All those countries – Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Federated States of Micronesia – are based in the Pacific region.

Former Prime Minister Moana Carcasses, whose party supported reserved seats first being introduced for women at the municipal level in 2014, recently came out to the media and stressed that quotas require an educational process. “Both men and women voters must be able to accept this new initiative at Municipal level first by working successfully together, before it can be introduced at Provincial Council level then eventually at National General Election level”, he said.

A recent poll conducted by Vanuatu Broadcasting Television Corporation (VBTC) showed that 44% of people believed in reserving seats for women in parliament and 56% of people did not.

What are the challenges that women face when trying to contest for election?

In 2016, the Council of Ministers began reviewing a bill that would require a constitutional amendment to allow for reserved seats for women in Parliament. This was after none of the nine women who contested in elections that year won a seat. The bill was not tabled at the next parliamentary sitting, and it’s unclear what has eventuated since.

When former Minister of Justice Ronald Warsal was discussing the bill with Radio New Zealand, he said that one of the reasons he believes women are not being elected is because Ni-Vanuatu society views women as having lesser roles. His statement reflects the findings from the publication Temporary Special Measures to Increase Women’s Political Participation in the Pacific: Case Studies of Implementation in the Region, which found that the principal factor in the under- representation of women are traditional attitudes towards women’s role in public life.

While cultural attitudes and gender bias against women is a major challenge, so is a lack of funds. Running an electoral campaign requires money and because women are less engaged in the formal economy, they are more economically disadvantaged than men. When women do engage in the formal economy, their income often goes back to supporting the family whether it’s school fees, food, clothing and housing, which leaves little for herself, let alone any funds to run an electoral campaign.

Some women leaders, such as Jenny Ligo, Interim Chairwoman for Vanuatu Coalition for Gender Equity to Parliament (VCGEP), and a former advocate for reserved seats, is demanding the government to ‘stop reserved seats’ and is calling for women to contest in existing political parties. This however does not include the Leleon Vanua Party, which is a female led party that was launched at the Leadership forum last year. Ironically it was the VCGEP who sent out a courtesy letter to the Mele Chiefs to inform them of the launch but Mrs. Ligo has since push backed on her support. In theory, it would be ideal to take Mrs. Ligo’s advice and encourage women to contest in existing parties, but in practice, this could prove to be a challenge given the preference from political parties for male candidates.

Historically only five women have been elected into parliament since Independence. While these women are seen as being ‘fairly elected’, the reality is that all of them were related or well known to men who were in powerful positions of authority. His endorsement of her candidacy, and the perception that women are an extension of the man she is related to, would have given that particular woman an advantage in comparison to other women who are not so well connected.

It seems for a woman to be successfully elected, she would need sufficient funds to run an election campaign, endorsement from her chief, support from her community and most likely have to contest through an existing party. Furthermore she should expect to be held to a high standard – one that is much higher than men and almost unattainable.

What does an ‘ideal’ woman candidate look like?

The ideal woman candidate would be someone who is God-fearing and custom abiding. She must have a good relationship with her husband (actually, she must have a husband in the first place!) and be respected by her community. She must be kind, faithful and humble – traits that are deeply rooted in harmful and outdated gender stereotypes. If she steps outside of this box, she is not worthy of being a leader. She must also be well liked among women and be able to ‘unite’ them.

It doesn’t matter that (male) members of parliament are putting each other to court and holding motions of no confidence periodically. Or that some of them have been convicted of committing violence against women or caught drink driving in official cars or practicing adultery.

It doesn’t matter that (male) politicians and businessmen are criticising each other in the media. It is not held against them the way it’s held against women who behave in a similar matter. The general public doesn’t accuse them of the inability to ‘unite’ or discredits their ability to lead.

There are dozens of political parties, many of them formed after breaking away from major parties, but the one political party that is dominated by women is seen as ‘excluding’ men. This party is then expected to represent all women’s views and is perceived to be a failure if it doesn’t.

We seem to for forget that women are multi-faceted people too. We don’t have to ‘come together’ to be represented by ONE VOICE. Imagine if we asked all these male dominated political parties to unite and have ONE VOICE. That would be ridiculous.

Women are allowed to be divisive and not want to be associated with each other! Furthermore just because a woman is running for election, that doesn’t mean she represents the ideals of all women or that women have to vote for her. And that is also okay. There is a false perception that unless ALL WOMEN UNITE, we are incapable of leading. This is an over simplification of what governance is like and requires us to start thinking more critically as a society.

We may need to seriously consider Temporary Special Measures, which have proven to increase women’s political representation, improve perceptions of women as leaders and have allowed women to bypass the challenges in seeking election. In Article 4 of CEDAW, which Vanuatu has ratified, it even encourages the use of TSM to accelerate equality between men and women.

It’s important to remember that women are not asking for representation in parliament because we want power or ‘to be like men’ – we are asking for representation because we need to ensure our voices are also included in decision-making. Our country is better and stronger if all our voices are heard.

By Yasmine Bjornum

The author of this article does not support the 50% quota for women in parliament, but does believe TSM would be helpful in Vanuatu if implemented strategically and in context.

This article was originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post