Most of the Pacific Islands region continues to be one of the least women-friendly places in the world. Although many of its leaders spout platitudes about respect for women in Pacific cultures, statistical records show some of the worst skews in gender parity on several fronts—ranging from health and education to employment, and business and political participation.
This skewed picture emerges almost uniformly throughout the Pacific Islands region. Indices for Pacific women in almost all areas of development and lifestyle continue to lag behind the rest of the world, sometimes even far behind economically worse off nations such as those in Sub Saharan Africa.
For instance legislative participation is so bad that countries like Papua New Guinea have not had more than one woman Member of Parliament in its history since independence. Violence and abuse against women abound in Pacific Islands societies, with non government organisations working with women reporting figures that show no let-up in the number of cases year on year.
It is not surprising that a United States independent expert who called on Papua New Guinea last month urged leaders and the government to urgently reinforce mechanisms that protect women against violence.
“The responsibility to prevent violence, protect against violence, provide remedies for victims and to punish perpetrators for all acts of violence against women is primarily an obligation of the state,” said Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.
The rapporteur also urged authorities to address some traditional practices that are harmful to women, stating that even though tradition played an important role in the daily lives of people, violence should not be tolerated under any circumstances.
“Violence against women is a pervasive phenomenon in Papua New Guinea with a wide range of manifestations occurring in the home, community and institutional settings,” Manjoo said. She noted in her preliminary findings that many women are subjected to physical and sexual violence by male family members.
“Domestic violence is socially perceived as a normal aspect of a woman's life and a family matter that should not be discussed publicly,” she added.
Among the traditional mores that are still followed as the norm in much of PNG, the UN expert identified polygamy as a common cause of violence in the family, because abuse usually start with neglect towards the first wife and her children and this can escalate into violence and in some cases, murder. In addition, Manjoo said complaints of violence and sexual abuse of women by the police while in detention had become a systemic issue.
While this is a severe indictment of PNG's unchanging societal norms, Manjoo welcomed a number of measures adopted by the PNG government such as family and sexual violence units set up by the police, the women and children's desks set up through community policing, and the family and sexual offence unit of the Office of the Public Prosecutor.
However, she also noted the lack of adequate human and financial resources for such initiatives and expressed the hope that such units could be strengthened and replicated at the country's provincial and district levels. This indeed is a clear reflection of the lack of political will to commit resources.
This is only a report on PNG. If the rapporteur had visited any other Pacific Islands country, the differences she would have encountered would have been minimal. Pacific Islands governments have repeatedly failed to accord women's emancipation the attention and commitment it deserves and have worked to stymie any progress women's groups have demanded. One instance of this is greater representation in parliaments and policy-making.
Perhaps, there is a leaf out of India's book that the Pacific Islands can consider. Last month, it was reported that India's recent draft food security bill, which is now in consideration by the legislature, proposes that women become the “heads of household” for the purpose of issue of ration cards (being a highly populous nation and food grain and other essential commodity supplies being continually under pressure, these are rationed out to prevent unscrupulous elements from hoarding them and then off-loading into the illegal black market at higher prices).
The draft legislation suggests that a man would only be an acceptable household head if there were no woman over the age of 18 in the family to assign the ration card to. Some 330 million families (mostly below India's defined poverty line) rely on ration cards. According to the 2011 census, just over 10 percent of the total households are headed by women.
The changes to the legislation have been introduced after studying a number of research reports that are freely available and which Pacific leaders and governments need to urgently study and implement according to their national needs and circumstances. These study reports are not new and have been known since the 1970s and repeatedly proven right.
For example, one study shows that agricultural productivity increases dramatically when women get the same amount of inputs men get, such as access to education and to labour and farming inputs such as fertilisers. Another study shows when women control household resources, they are more likely to benefit children than when controlled by men. Women are clearly better resources managers. This is why in many countries microfinance is directed more towards women than men.
Women have fewer expenditure distractions such as addictions and have a greater commitment towards the welfare of their families than men. Women have been known to contribute as much as 90 percent of their income towards their home.
Even in developed countries, where greater numbers of people have had to depend on government handouts following the global financial crisis, food stamps and other such essential benefits are being given to women rather than men.
This is so even in a country like the United Kingdom. The wisdom of putting women in the centre of welfare is an idea that is finding appeal across the world—except perhaps in the Pacific Islands region.
The main issue limiting men trying to care for their families has been identified as pride. Men tend to not admit that hunger exists in their family because it hurts their self-image.
It is the same sense of false pride that prevents the Pacific Islands' male dominated leadership from giving women their due.