Samoa Observer

APIA, Samoa (July 20) - Geraldine Ferraro, when she became an American vice-presidential candidate, said: "What we need are not just a few women who make history, but many women who make policy."

They came to mind here in Samoa yesterday. A publication came through the mail about a meeting at Nadi, Fiji, in which Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon said: "If you don’t allow half the world to play their part in solving these problems, you’re only going to get half the solutions."

Ms Ferraro and Mr McKinnon were both talking about an issue that could soon increasingly be making the news in some Pacific Islands countries. This is the involvement of women in politics.

The document in the mail was about a Commonwealth Plan of Action for Gender Equality, which will take effect from 2005 to 2015. The document said this action plan is designed to tackle gender discrimination and enhance democracy, peace, the rule of law and human rights.

The Plan of Action, the document in the mail said, was agreed at the Seventh Commonwealth Women's Affairs Ministers Meeting. It was endorsed by 43 ministers, including the representative from Samoa.

In a communiqué, these ministers stressed the importance of developing policies and programmes to promote gender equality and to monitor their progress. They affirmed that the principles of democracy require women's equal participation and representation to achieve gender equality and sustainable development.

Similar rousing declarations have been heard before in other bodies. Often. So what makes this one different in this part of the world?

One difference will likely be the strong personal involvement and commitment of Mr McKinnon, the man now at the helm of the Commonwealth.

Mr McKinnon is not only a decent man working hard in an influential role. He comes from New Zealand, the first nation (1893) to grant women full voting rights. Today New Zealand continues to help lead the world. It has women in many of its main leadership roles, including both Governor-General and Prime Minister.

Mr McKinnon is also someone who cares deeply about the Pacific Islands. He has spent more time in this region since taking charge at the Commonwealth Secretariat than any of his predecessors.

He stressed in Nadi: "Gender equality does not only benefit women, it benefits everyone." He emphasized that the involvement of women is essential in the achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. He said the marginalisation of women is detrimental to humanity and called for the elimination of discrimination and inequality based on gender.

The plan, and Mr McKinnon’s strong backing for it, is likely to have an impact in the 11 Pacific Islands members of the Commonwealth. This is significant. Throughout much of the world, women are a minority in politics. But in many Pacific Islands nations women barely get a toe in the door.

Consider the following:

• Although women constitute half the Pacific population, when Helen Clark comes to Apia early next month for the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ summit she will be very much alone. The New Zealand Prime Minister is the only woman heading the government of any of the 16 Forum member countries.

• According to the 2004 figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), in its Pacific region women make up just 12.4% of the members of parliament. The only IPU region with a lower percentage is the Arab States.

• Samoa is 98th on the IPU’s 2004 table. This is with just 6.7% of the parliamentary seats filled by women.

• But Samoa, despite this low percentage, is actually a leader in the independent Pacific Islands when it comes to women’s representation in parliament. Six independent Pacific Islands countries do not even have a single women in their parliaments, according to these new IPU figures.

So why is having women in politics important? Why is the Commonwealth now focusing on this? Why is Mr McKinnon paying it so much attention to it?

The answer is simple. Politics is about power. And power is about being able to participate in decision making and planning.

In too many Pacific Islands countries, half the population is still largely excluded from participating in that policy making Geraldine Ferraro was talking about. Or, as Mr McKinnon said: "If you don’t allow half the world to play their part in solving these problems, you’re only going to get half the solutions."

July 27, 2004

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