Leaders of 15 Pacific Island nations have pledged to remove barriers to women's economic empowerment, end violence against women and pave the way for their increased political representation, at the conclusion of the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, last week. The meeting was also attended by the Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet.
Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Tuiloma Neroni Slade, stated at the opening ceremony that “this year is an occasion to acknowledge the strength, insight, determination and wisdom of Pacific women, past and present. We need to continue with greater clarity to support and encourage concerted efforts under way to effectively address the entrenched disadvantages that many women face….”
The Pacific Islands Forum is an inter-governmental organisation of 16 independent and self-governing Pacific states, in a region with a population of approximately 10 million, which aims to advance peace, security and economic prosperity in the region.
Forum members include Australia, Papua New Guinea and Palau in the west through to Tonga, Niue and Cook Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. New Caledonia and French Polynesia are associate members, while American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Tokelau and Wallis and Fortuna have observer status.
The theme of this year's annual meeting of leaders was ‘Large Ocean Island States: the Pacific Challenge', highlighting the central importance of the Pacific Ocean to the cultural identities and sustainable livelihoods of islanders. Issues discussed included the status of women, climate change, the outcomes of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), management of Pacific fisheries, infrastructure development, regional trade, education and health.
During a speech to the Forum on Aug. 30, Bachelet, said: “Women and girls are key to meeting the many challenges of sustainable development here in the Pacific, as in the rest of the world. Sustainable development requires women's rights, equal opportunities and women's full participation.
“This is something that Pacific leaders have recognised,” she said. “The Pacific Plan, endorsed by leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in 2005, explicitly cites gender equality as a key element in achieving sustainable development.”
The new Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration, endorsed at this year's Forum, outlines commitments to implement national policies to improve the status of women. Pledges include temporary special measures to accelerate women's equal participation in government and promoting their senior appointments in the private sector, reforming legislation that impedes equal employment opportunities and pay conditions, and supporting female entrepreneurs with financial services and training.
Women's political representation is 4.3 percent in Kiribati, 3.8 percent in Vanuatu and 3 percent in the Marshall Islands. Papua New Guinea has three female members of parliament, while the Solomon Islands have one and Tuvalu currently has none.
Joanna Hayter, Executive Director of the International Women's Development Agency (IWDA) based in Australia, said that the commitment of Pacific leaders “can make a real difference in addressing both power and empowerment in relation to women's rights and gender equality.”
Forum leaders further vowed to implement legislation to protect women from violence with significant punishment for perpetrators and to develop health, counselling and legal services for those who have experienced abuse. According to UN Women, 68 percent of women aged 15-49 years in Kiribati and 64 percent in the Solomon Islands have experienced physical or sexual violence.
Leaders have agreed to report on progress toward the declaration's goals at future annual Forum gatherings.
Other significant outcomes of this year's Pacific leaders' convention were the launch of the Regional Legislative and Regulatory Framework for Deep Sea Minerals Exploration, which sets guidelines for Pacific Island nations to manage the sustainable use of ocean resources, and the opening of the world's largest 1.1 million square kilometre Cook Islands Marine Park.
Eight new maritime boundary agreements were signed by the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Tokelau, paving the way for better governance of overlapping national maritime territories. There are 48 shared national boundaries in the Pacific Islands and previously only 21 were subject to treaty.
Leaders also acknowledged the urgency of boosting progress on the Millennium Development Goals before 2015 with special focus needed on equitable economic growth, educational outcomes, child and maternal health, as well as gender parity.