Has there been progress on rights for women and girls in the Pacific?

By Blandine Mollard, Research Officer- Gender Equality, Secretariat of the Pacific Community By Blandine Mollard, Research Officer- Gender Equality, Secretariat of the Pacific Community

Since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, governments have measured their progress against the set of commitments and principles they agreed on at the meeting.

Twenty years on, this set of principles, known as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, is still the most comprehensive and ambitious framework for achieving equality between men and women in all aspects of life.

The Platform addresses 12 critical areas for action, from the economy and the decision-making sphere to the role of women in the environment, in conflict prevention and in the media. It not only calls for advances on issues such as maternal health, violence against women and teenage pregnancy, but it also aims to eliminate all barriers to women’s full participation in society through promoting education and training, poverty alleviation, human rights and institutional mechanisms for gender equality.

This year, the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform was commemorated at the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York. The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), with the support of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and UN Women, took the lead in compiling a regional review report for Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTS) Based on reviews at the national level, the ‘Beijing+20’ report highlights progress and setbacks in 16 Pacific Island countries and territories against the 12 critical areas of the original Beijing Platform for Action.

Two months after its global launch in New York during the 2015 meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the Regional Report on the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action was launched at the University of the South Pacific on 7 May and in Tuvalu on 14 May, providing opportunities for lively discussion between practitioners, political leaders and gender equality activists.

Has there been progress on rights for women and girls?

The report reveals that since the last reporting exercise in 2010, there have been initiatives across the Pacific Islands region to build the capacity of public institutions and civil society organisations on various aspects of gender mainstreaming. As a result, most PICTS have adopted specific national gender equality policies and have strengthened national mechanisms for mobilising all areas of government to work towards gender equality goals.

Equally, the overwhelming majority of PICTs have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). There has been considerable progress in the past two decades in the field of family law, particularly in repealing discriminatory clauses against women and girls.

Another area of real progress lies in the understanding and prevention of violence against women. Eleven countries have conducted national studies on domestic violence and have used the results to inform the design and adoption of specific legislation to protect women. In the past five years, no fewer than eight Pacific Island countries have developed or revised their legal framework for the prevention and criminalisation of violence against women. While it is still early to assess the impact of the legislation, there have been undeniable gains in raising awareness of the far-reaching consequences of violence against women at the individual, community and national level.  Most of these gains are due to civil society activism.

When it comes to fostering women’s political participation, there has also been progress, albeit slow. Women in national parliaments are in the minority in most PICTs except for the French Pacific territories, which stand out as leaders in terms of women’s political participation. In French Polynesia, 56 per cent of parliamentarians are women; in New Caledonia, the figure is 42 per cent and in Wallis and Futuna, 20 per cent.

Six PICTs (French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, Papua New Guinea’s province of Bougainville, Samoa and Vanuatu) reported having introduced reserved seats for women in elected bodies, either at the national or local level and there has been growing interest in Temporary Special Measures across the region. Such advances are promising and likely to have important benefits for the uptake of women’s concerns.  

What should happen now?

Reports such as the Beijing+20 report should be used as tools to celebrate gains, prevent setbacks and galvanise advocacy of stronger coordination between government entities, civil society and development partners and increased resourcing. Indeed, in spite of the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration made in 2012, the level of attention, resources and capacity committed to gender equality remains insufficient to achieve substantive gains.

Because it is our hope that the dissemination of the report’s findings will provoke discussion about the next steps and a renewal of the momentum for women and girls experienced in Beijing, SPC has organised an online discussion on the 12 themes of the Beijing Platform for Action. The discussion is running from February to July 2015 on the Pacific Women’s Information Network (PacWIN), an email-based community managed by SPC and PacWIN Facebook page.

Along with insights from individual women, experts, practitioners and leaders around the region have shared their experience and their views on the progress made and challenges in progressing gender equality. 

These efforts to produce and disseminate information on gender equality and women’s human rights in the region are part of SPC’s wider mission to develop knowledge, support the development of evidence-based public policies and build the capacity of government and civil society to better respond to the needs and perspectives of women and girls. They will culminate at the 13th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women in 2016, where people from Pacific Island countries and territories will discuss the adoption of a revised policy framework for achieving gender equality in the region.

With the conviction that more equal sharing of power and responsibility between men and women is an enabler of economic, political, cultural and social development in PICTs, only with dynamic, coordinated action on gender equality can we hope to make sustainable progress.

As stated by Hon. Tolofuaivalelei Falemoe Leiataua, Samoa's Minister of Women, Community and Social Development at the launch of the report at the CSW in New York, “We ought to renew our commitment and refocus our efforts to ensure that our women and girls enjoy their human rights and have improved quality of life as members of society today, tomorrow and in the future ahead of us.”


SPC’s Regional Rights Resource Team receives core funding from the Australian Government and additional project support from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Pacific Leadership Programme (PLP), European Union (EU) and the German Development Bank (KfW).