Women, gender and ‘voice’ at the Pacific Islands Forum

Author: Nicole George, UQ

As the 2012 Pacific Islands Forum got underway in the Cook Islands, regional media commentary focused on the high political profile of the women who would attend and their efforts to focus intergovernmental attention on the issue of gender disadvantage.

The fact that issues pertinent to the status of women in the region were under debate generated profound interest, and many anticipated important announcements on the push for women’s advancement across the region. They were not disappointed. The Forum Secretary General, Neroni Slade, set the tone with an opening speech that made specific mention of the need for a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to gender violence. The Australian government used the event to announce a new $AU 320 million, 10-year regional aid program designed to empower women by targeting their political representation, economic participation and physical security.  Although there has been heavy criticism of political power plays within the Forum in recent years, and mounting allegations that its legitimacy is disintegrating, it remains — for the moment — the pre-eminent site of regional intergovernmental negotiation. The fact that the Forum is today willing to deliberate on these questions is, therefore, an important breakthrough for gender politics. But premature celebrations should be tempered with some concern about the voices that could be heard in this debate as the meeting progressed.

This is not the first time that a regional meeting of Pacific state leaders has addressed the topic of gender disadvantage. Only a few in the region will remember the South Pacific Commission (SPC) meeting convened in the early 1980s in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, to deliberate on similar issues. There are important differences worth nothing between these two events, as well as important continuities. Differences lie in the fact that the 2012 meeting will include the presence of women with a high standing in international politics, such as the former Chilean president, now Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, and US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Continuities lie in the fact that, aside from these high-profile attendees, Pacific Islands women will be as hard to detect in the formal deliberations as they were in the SPC meeting. Back then, the discussion was a male-dominated affair, interrupted only when local YWCA members stormed the meeting during a tea-break, protesting the fact that women had been prevented from speaking for themselves about their needs, interests and perspectives.

In 2012, the only female Forum head of state in attendance was the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard. Gillard’s government has dedicated a significant amount of its aid budget to programs aimed at alleviating gender disadvantage in the region and the Forum announcement demonstrates this will continue.  It is also clear that Australian efforts have been behind the push to introduce discussion on the status of Pacific women at this Forum meeting.  But efforts to convince the region’s male political elite that questions of gender disadvantage deserve their increased attention would surely have also benefitted from some local female political representation. Without this, the ‘gender agenda’ may look very much like yet another Australian effort to hijack Forum deliberations for its own ends.

If received in these terms, this will be a lost regional opportunity. The focus on issues such as women’s economic and political standing, or their exposure to extreme levels of gender violence reflect concerns deeply held by Pacific women. These are not imposed agendas driven by Australian interests, but home-grown concerns that Pacific Islands women have worked hard to promote in both national and regional political contexts. The reason why these issues are today under debate within the Forum is to be found in the work conducted by the civil society networks of Pacific women, who have brought these questions into the public domain and captured the attention of regional aid-providers.

It seems highly ironic, therefore, that only a handful of representatives from Pacific women’s organisations were able to attend the meeting in Rarotonga. Generally there is a feeling that women have been sidelined from these events, just as they were some 30 years ago in Port Moresby. While the Forum deliberations are always a ‘closed shop’, in past years important side events have provided civil society actors generally, and women’s groups in particular, the ability to make their presence felt. This year, no such events appear to have been organised. Women’s organisations have complained that they could not afford the expense of travelling to the Cook Islands and were offered no support to do so by the donor community or the Forum Secretariat. With such high-profile supporters of women’s advancement in attendance and the Forum agenda specifically focused on questions of gender, the inattention to the need for Pacific women’s participation appears to be a gross oversight. But as history shows, it is largely consistent with the way regional intergovernmental deliberation has functioned in the past on these questions.

With a little more forethought, the 2012 Forum might have been prepared in a way that opened up opportunities for Pacific women to speak for themselves before a significant gathering of policy makers. This would have allowed them to defend the regional authenticity of the issues under debate, and hold off the inevitable criticism that the topic is being imposed by outsiders. It also would have offered gender advocates long-overdue recognition of the contributions they have made to regional political debate. Instead, Pacific women and regional gender advocates have been denied these opportunities. They watch, as they did in the 1980s, from the sidelines while others speak on their behalf.

Dr Nicole George is a Lecturer at the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland.