[Suva, March 9] Temporary special measures or affirmative action policies like quotas should be considered to get more women into Pacific parliaments. A panel discussion last night concluded that while Pacific countries should still implement long-term strategies to address cultural, social and economic barriers to women’s election to Pacific parliaments, temporary special measures provide a quick, short-term option to immediately increase women’s representation.
The panel discussion, which coincided with the 100th anniversary of the International Women’s day, marked the launch of a long term partnership between the University of the South Pacific (USP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
“Across our region, women have been under-represented for too long – and the reality is that it isn’t getting better. In the last 12 months we had five elections in our region – in Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga and Samoa. In three of those elections, not a single woman was elected, and in two of them, fewer women got back into parliament than before. We seem to be going backwards – we need to do something about that, and we need to do something quickly,” said one of the panelists, Mrs Priscilla Naidu Singh.
Mrs Singh, who has served for nine years as a Suva City Councilor and contested the national elections in Fiji in 2006, described her personal experience of running in local and national elections. She emphasized that the true debate was not whether the Pacific needed temporary special measures, but rather the type of quotas (or temporary special measures) that were most appropriate within the different Pacific political contexts.
“In our region, the most common quotas are to simply reserve a number of seats for women or to require political parties to promote women candidates. In fact, it is worth noting that in the 23 countries around the world that have more than 30% of women in their national parliament, 20 of them have used some form of quota. A point that will help allay fears of domination is that quotas are supposed to be applied as a temporary measure – that is to say that quotas should only be in place until the barriers for women's entry into politics are removed. In Bougainville for example, the 3 seats that they have reserved for women are included in the Constitution – but will be reviewed after 10 years when they review their Constitution,” said Mrs Singh.
On the other side of the debate, Rev Lord Tui’afitu, the Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Tonga, cautioned against the introduction of temporary special measures in the Pacific. He shared the experience of Tonga’s recent elections.
“In the last general election in Tonga last year, 10 women ran for the House and none of them were elected by the people of Tonga into Parliament. However, one woman was nominated as per clause 51 of the Constitution of Tonga by the Prime Minister to be part of Cabinet and non elected member of Parliament. We cannot say that the unequal level of participation is embedded in our society’s culture and social beliefs as women are highly regarded in the Tongan society. However, we can say that this is clearly an indicator that Tonga and her people are not ready for women leadership. These results should serve as indicators for leaders and the right time for change,” said Rev Lord Tui’afitu.
“Simply increasing women’s share of seats in parliament alone is not a solution and does not guarantee that they will make decisions that benefit the majority of women. True democracy would not be achieved by preferential measures because such a system would only create more problems to women being undervalued and perceived as not politically deserving,” he said.
The panel discussion was followed by a rich discussion on various aspects of women’s participation on politics. One key point raised by audience members was the importance of voter education. In response to a question about whether quotas diminish the voters right to choose, it was clarified that temporary special measures still require voters to vote, but they get one vote for their preferred candidates in an open seat and one in the seat reserved for women.
Noting that some people have argued that quotas are unfair and distort the democratic process, one of the members of the audience compared democracy to free markets, noting that temporary special measures would actually positively correct already existing gender distortions in political representation in the Pacific, rather than create more distortions.
The Pacific is lagging behind other parts of the world in women’s representation in Parliament. As of December 2010, women accounted for 19.2 percent of seats in national assemblies around the world, still far from the target of 30 percent reiterated in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995. However, currently, Pacific Parliaments are composed of only 5.3 % of women parliamentarians.
Article 4 of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women specifically recognises that temporary special measures may need to be implemented in the short-term to advance women’s equality.Temporary special measures can be used as a short-term measure to “kickstart” an increase in women’s representation, while longer-term efforts are being made to create a more sustainable, level playing field for women in politics.The panel discussion was preceded by addresses from the Vice Chancellor and President of USP, Professor Rajesh Chandra and Toily Kurbanov, the UNDP Resident Representative a.i who highlighted the importance of the partnership between UNDP and USP.