By Ethel Sigimanu, Permanent Secretary of Women, Youth, Children and Family Affairs Ministry in Solomon Islands
Welcome news for the Solomon Islands but it does not mean that the country is now ready for change. History merely repeated itself. One bi-election; a successful woman; is not about change. Each time we need to understand the context. Traditionally leadership and decision making is still a man’s domain. One woman in a 50 member parliament is not yet enough change.
We have been involved in a struggle for years to find a way to re-format the way our communities think about what is normal. We now look to see if the new regional ‘Gender Initiative’ will help us to bring about change by getting us all to think
When I was a young girl and our family went to bathe in the river, the men always went upstream to where the clean water was, and where we collected the drinking water; the women and children bathed downstream where they also washed the clothes and the dishes too. I didn’t think anything about this until I grew older, had different experiences and, as a woman, learnt that that was not necessarily the best for everyone’s health.
Looking at things through the lens of experience and opportunity helps us see things in a different light. What we had seen as normal does need to be questioned. Men were upstream in a different place. They didn’t see what was happening. The norm discriminated against women and denied them the same opportunities.
The challenge we all face is how to re-format the hard drive of our thinking.
Women represent a little more than 30 per cent of the public service in Solomon Islands, 60 per cent of whom are in junior positions. Overall women hold only 6 per cent of senior public service positions. Despite increasing numbers of women
candidates over the years only two women have been elected to Parliament since
our country’s Independence—both through bi-elections. Males have also dominated at the community, as well as in informal and traditional sectors because of custom and cultural practices.
The 2009 Solomon Islands Family Health and Safety Study reveals that 64 per cent of the women respondents aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence,
or both, from an intimate partner. The study also found childhood sexual abuse (before the age of 15 years) to be common (37 per cent of female respondents). Despite the efforts of a number of organisations over the past twenty years, these unacceptable levels remain a serious concern in our country. The situation calls for urgent national action, including a specific policy on eliminating violence against women. The eliminating violence against women policy should strengthen legislative protection and law enforcement, treatment and rehabilitation programs for perpetrators, preventative approaches and provide support services for female survivors of violence.
While we are concerned about achieving gender equality we need to ensure that women are empowered economically to be self-sufficient so they have some control over their lives and the lives of their families. Women’s employment in the formal sector has risen in Solomon Islands, but has been restricted largely to low paid low status jobs in the tertiary and services sector with average female earnings close to half the average male wage.
What we lack here is a critical mass to actually influence change! Even with the campaign for temporary elected reserved seats for women in parliament the strongest voice was against that initiative. The bottom line is that we need women to be in Parliament and at all levels of decision making so as to bring about the kind of change that benefits all, irrespective of gender or sex. Temporary special measures for increasing women representation in Parliament is the best guarantee for that change to happen because there are many barriers that stop women in the Solomon Islands from active participation in politics at all levels.
We are hopeful that the Regional Gender Initiative will support us to change social attitudes and behaviours towards women in the Solomons and across the region.
There is no time for complacency. Leaders need to meet the challenge head on. The problems and difficulties are staring us all in the face on a daily basis; we all need to raise our voices to bring about positive change. We need to engage and transform: men, women, youth, legislators, pastors, community leaders and development partners.
About the author: Ethel Sigimanu
Ethel Sigimanu is Permanent Secretary of Women, Youth, Children and Family Affairs Ministry in Solomon Islands. During her long career in public service she has also led several other ministries including Home Affairs, Fisheries and National Unity, Reconciliation and Peace. The recent appointment of Solomon Islands (along with Australia) to the board of UN Women gives the women of the Pacific a very strong voice – not only to participate in international dialogue to promote women’s rights but to also bring a regional perspective, which Ethel hopes will be a platform for action in Solomon Islands and the region.