“No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half its citizens,” former US First Lady Michelle Obama once said.

A group of 24 passionate young women are determined that 2018 will be the year Vanuatu reaches a whole new level as the first workshop of CARE International’s Young Women’s Leadership Program gets underway in Port Vila on Friday.

Women have been chronically underrepresented in decision making in Vanuatu from the community level all the way up to the top tiers, where only five women have ever been elected to parliament in nearly 40 years of independence.

he Young Women’s Leadership Program, supported by the Australian Government and officially launched by Australian Deputy High Commissioner Susan Ryle in November, aims to build the skills and confidence of young women who are already acting as leaders in their communities to take their place in all levels of Vanuatu’s leadership.

“We are really excited about this program and the journeys that these young women will go on this year,” says CARE’s Gender Equality Program Manager Tegan Molony. “They are an amazing group of people who have so much to offer their communities and their country.”

Selected through a highly contested application process, the 24 young women leaders will take part in the program over a full 12 months, exploring topics like goal setting, public speaking, negotiating, report writing and budgeting. Mentoring is a key element of the program and each young woman leader will be partnered with an experienced women leader to support them as they learn.

Louise Nasak from the Ministry of Justice and Community Services is one of the mentors. “I’m a mother myself and I need to be a role model to my three daughters who are all now young women. I’m really interested in empowering these young women to become strong leaders, believe in themselves and have the courage to do anything they want. And if they don’t have the courage within themselves, we’ll be here to help push them forward.”

The program includes six participants from Tafea province, as part of CARE’s commitment to working with some of Vanuatu’s most remote communities. The remaining participants of the program are from Port Vila, but all face similar challenges in balancing their leadership aspirations with cultural expectations and family responsibilities.

“Regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, if you have a passion or leadership skills within you, I believe you can become a leader. Despite the many criticisms of men because you’re a woman, you can do it. This is the kind of change I want to see happen in our country,” says young woman leader Janet Tanghwa.

Mentor Shirley Abraham agrees.

“Most of our leaders talk a lot about empowering women.

“But I think that we really need to provide a space for those young women to experience a leadership role and be there to guide them. I’m excited to be part of a young woman’s achievement.”