From “Witchery” to Empowerment: Women’s Policy in the Pacific
March 1, 2013
Twenty-year-old Kepari Leniata, a young mother, was tortured, stripped naked, bound, and burned alive on a pile of trash on February 6 for practicing “witchcraft” in the Western Highlands province of Papua New Guinea. This grisly scene prompted international condemnation and highlighted a grim reality— acts of violence against women and gender inequality are all too prevalent in the Pacific.
With International Women’s Day taking place on March 8, it seems appropriate to contemplate the plight of women in the Pacific. While not all violence against women in the Pacific is as horrific as the recent incident in Papua New Guinea, the regional standard for women’s rights is low. A 2011 survey conducted by the Vanuatu Women’s Center reported that, during their lifetimes, 60 percent of the women surveyed had experienced physical and/or sexual violence and 68 percent had experienced emotional abuse from their husbands or partners. The prevalence of domestic violence is encouraged by the belief that it is socially unacceptable to bring what are considered “private sphere” experiences into the open.
Pacific women also face impediments outside of the home. Although women in the Pacific are beginning to achieve similar levels of literacy and opportunities for education as men do, they do not have the same access to formal employment. Across the region in 2012, men occupied paid positions outside of the agricultural sector at a rate of two men to one woman. In Melanesia, men earn 20–50 percent more than women do because of access to better-paid positions.
Leadership positions are also unlikely to be held by women. The Pacific has one of the lowest rates of political participation of women in formal politics in the world, with only 3 to 5 percent of all parliamentary seats across the region held by women, compared to the developing country average of 18 percent.
When incidence of violence, economic opportunity, and formal political participation are taken into account, it is no wonder that the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index in 2011 ranks Pacific nations such as Papua New Guinea 140 out of 146.
Women’s lack of empowerment in the Pacific is not only an issue of human rights violations; it is a lost economic opportunity. It will be difficult for Pacific Islands to reach their full potential when half their populations are not given the same access to work opportunities, education, and leadership positions. In addition, there is a high economic cost associated with abuse and violence against women in terms of medical treatments and diminished productivity. Gender inequality is estimated to cost the Asia-Pacific region $47 billion a year.
Governments and civil society have launched strategies to confront gender disparity in the Pacific. It is important for the Pacific Island governments to legislate against violence and discrimination. Most Pacific Islands ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and have legislated against issues including domestic violence.
At the 2012 Pacific Islands Forum, Pacific leaders pledged to place the status of women on the agenda. Despite these commitments, however, it is clear that gender concerns are not yet fully institutionalized. For example, in Papua New Guinea the claims of “witchcraft” that lead to so much violence are often justified by the 1971 Sorcery Act.
Instituting change will require a shift in culture to encourage citizens to report abuse and discrimination and prompt police to act. Indigenous civic organizations such as the Vanuatu Women’s Center and the Fiji Women’s Crisis Center, plus international movements like the White Ribbon Ambassadors program, seek to create a safety net for local women. They also provide a platform for outreach—not only to empower women to report offenses but also to educate men on the importance of acting against violence and discrimination. The effectiveness of these programs can sometimes be limited in reach, however, because of the region’s geographic barriers such as the mountain ranges in Papua New Guinea.
In recent years, U.S. foreign policy has taken significant steps to encourage the empowerment of women. During President Barak Obama’s first term, there was a coordinated push across government agencies to incorporate women’s issues into the foreign policy agenda. The administration announced in 2009 the creation of the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the Department of State and appointed Melanne S. Verveer as ambassador-at-large. The National Security Council added staff that focus exclusively on gender. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) added to its structure a senior gender adviser and a coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment. In 2012, USAID also incorporated goals of gender equality into its programs.
The catalyst for this push was former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Her tireless advocacy for women’s issues was evident from when she was first lady until her farewell address as secretary of state. Clinton focused particularly on the economic and security argument to help change attitudes toward gender inequality.
One of Clinton’s greatest contributions to U.S. Pacific policy was to place women’s empowerment on the agenda and apply pressure on the Pacific Island governments to follow suit. At the 2012 Pacific Islands Forum, in collaboration with Australia and New Zealand, Clinton announced the “Rarotonga Partnership for the Advancement of Pacific Island Women,” which focuses on economic empowerment and creating public and private leadership roles for women. The idea of the program is to make space for women to participate in decision-making.
Despite this excellent start, U.S. efforts to better the lives of Pacific women are still in their infancy. Two main avenues should be expanded. First, the United States should support targeted women’s programs. For example, U.S. partners such as Australia have had great success in effecting change by supporting indigenous women’s shelters and outreach centers. The most cost-effective option, however, would be to tenaciously fold women’s empowerment goals into new U.S. initiatives. This could be as simple a matter as requiring a quota of women to participate in a program.
With the departure of Clinton, it is important for the United States not to lose its focus on this pressing issue. Instead, it should continue to keep women’s empowerment as a priority in its Pacific policy. Through innovative policy initiatives, there is opportunity for the United States to work with its friends in the region to create real change in the future of Pacific women.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the February 28, 2013, issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Elke Larsen is the research assistant for the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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