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Marshall Islands Journal Majuro, Marshall Islands

December 21, 2001


Four Marshall Islands women are playing prominent roles in the RMI government's stepped-up action for reform and accountability. This normally shouldn't come as a surprise, particularly in this society whose foundation is built on a matrilineal framework. But in modern times, women have generally been relegated to the background, holding a relatively few top positions in government. The Nitijela is one case in point: since its inception in 1979, just a single member out of 33 has been female. In fact, until earlier this year, there was just one woman heading a government ministry. But the Public Service Commission and the national government had the wisdom to appoint two more women to head government ministries and now these three secretaries, along with a fourth agency head, are setting a pace in government reform circles.

We are talking about:

• Saeko Shoniber, Secretary of Finance. Having worked at the ministry in a variety of capacities since 1987, Shoniber knows her job better than anyone else in the country. Moreover, she's got the ability to say "no" to everyone from program managers to Cabinet ministers -- which means that, since she took over earlier this year, the Ministry of Finance is starting to run properly. Significantly, Finance officials report that while other U.S.-affiliated islands m the region are now having their books audited for 2000 or even doing catch-up from the late 1990s, the RMI Ministry of Finance has already started its 2001 audit.

• Biram Stege, Secretary of Education. Stege is the newest to government service, having been appointed to head the troubled Education Ministry earlier this year after years as a program manager at the College of the Marshall Islands, and as a principal at Assumption Schools in Majuro. Her message has been simple and direct: she's pushing to improve organization in the public schools and focusing efforts on reading skills. Under her management a more accountable system for providing support and training to the approximately 70 RMI public schools has been established. Improvements in education will not happen overnight. But Stege is pushing hard for change in an effort to motivate the Ministry of Education to break away from the downward trend in educational achievements over the past few years.

• Marie Maddison, Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Maddison is the "elder stateswoman" among the growing cadre of female managers, having been Secretary of Health, Education, and Social Services, and also a top executive at the College of the Marshall Islands. She's brought in new and talented younger Marshallese into the Ministry through such innovations as an intern program that gives recent college graduated Marshallese practical work experience and training in foreign affairs. Her presence has helped to stabilize and focus the Ministry as it works on Compact negotiations, treaty implementation, labor issues and a variety of other areas.

• Saane K. Aho, Administration of Marshall Islands Social Security Administration. Some would say that since she came on board MISSA about 18 months ago that this agency has gone from being the worst run to the best operated in the country. The numbers tell the story. Two years ago, the agency operated at a deficit of $3 million. In the just completed fiscal year 2001, the agency ended the year with $170,000 in the bank. Moreover, unauditable just 18 months ago, MISSA has put its financial accounting house in order and is now in the process of completing its 2001 audit -- meaning that it is completely up to date. Quite a turnaround.

The Marshall Islands owes a good deal of its improving financial and reform reputation to these four women. They are putting muscle behind President Kessai Note's promise of reform, accountability and transparency in government. In highlighting some of the accomplishments of these four outstanding women, we don't mean to ignore the significant contributions of many male managers and leaders in the government -- just to give due recognition to some under-recognized, but not unappreciated people. We also recognize the men -- from the President to the Cabinet and the PSC -- who put them there.

It gives new meaning to the old saying, "Behind every successful man is a good woman."

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail:  Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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