One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Women's Political Representation in the Pacific
Dr Kerryn Baker and Dr Theresa Meki
This article first apperared on the Australian Institute of International Affairs 'Australian Outlook'
New approaches to building gender equal political spaces are necessary.
Independent states in the Pacific region have the lowest levels of women’s political representation in the world. Fewer than seven percent of Pacific politicians are women, compared to 27 percent globally. The absence of women’s voices in political decision-making has been an issue consistently raised in regional forums, although progress has been slow. Yet in November 2022, a milestone was reached: for the first time, there was at least one elected woman in every Pacific parliament.
This seems to validate a common sentiment of “give it time” – that women’s political representation in the Pacific is bound to gradually increase. Yet the reality is that progress is not guaranteed, and setbacks are common. Elections last year in the region’s two largest states, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, illustrate this clearly.
In Papua New Guinea’s last national election in 2022, only 159 women (4 percent) contested out of 3619 total candidates. Two women – Rufina Peter and Kessy Sawang – were voted in. Their wins came after a five-year hiatus of zero women in parliament (2017-2022). Both Peter and Sawang were highly competitive candidates who had previously contested in 2017 and performed well, both placing third in their respective electorates (Central Provincial and Rai Coast Open).
Similar to previous elections, the 2022 election was rife with electoral malfeasance, and in many electorates voters experienced intimidation and violence. After Peter was declared, Prime Minister James Marape acknowledged the need to improve the electoral system to make it more conducive for women, yet simultaneously squashed any hopes of introducing special measures for women, stating, “Ms Peter has shown that you can win any election … yes, we need to make changes in how the election is run but Ms Peter has set the bar.” This response seems to be a dismissal of calls to institute special measures to ensure women’s representation in politics, a position he has maintained since becoming prime minister in 2019.
The wins of Peter and Sawang were impressive personal achievements, and testaments to their individual leadership, credibility, and their strategic approach to political campaigning. Yet the fact remains that Papua New Guinea’s electoral space is hostile towards women. The number of women in parliament today is lower than it was 45 years ago, after Papua New Guinea’s first post-independence elections.
Meanwhile, Fiji’s 2022 general election was significant as it prompted the first change of government since the 2006 military coup. Despite some concerns, the transfer of power was peaceful. Yet this democratic milestone was accompanied by a substantial drop in the number of women MPs in Fiji’s parliament. Women made up just 55 (16 percent) of the 343 candidates. Following the December election, women’s representation declined from ten out of 51 MPs (19.6 percent) to six out of 55 MPs (10.9 percent). After the resignation of Rosy Akbar in February 2023, the number of women MPs fell further, to five (9.1 percent).
Fiji has often been seen as a positive outlier in terms of women’s representation, consistently appearing at the top of regional league tables. Its strongly institutionalised political party system – relatively unusual in the region – and, since 2014, its proportional representation voting system, have been viewed as beneficial for women candidates. It also has relatively high numbers of women in party leadership, and has had women deputy prime ministers and leaders of the opposition before (although a woman has never been appointed prime minister). Yet the 2022 election is evidence that future gains in terms of women’s representation are never assured.
In both the Papua New Guinea and Fiji general elections the proportion of women candidates contesting declined. This is perhaps unsurprising as candidates in successive elections have expressed frustration with the process. In Papua New Guinea, women candidates in both 2017 and 2022 alleged that fraud and manipulation, along with problems with electoral administration, hurt their electoral chances. In Fiji, women candidates across multiple elections have reported vicious online harassment. A recent study highlighted how violence against women in politics affected women’s political participation and ambition in Pacific Island countries, including Papua New Guinea and Fiji. This is another sign that gradual increases – either in elected women or women candidates in elections – are far from guaranteed.
Both Prime Minister Marape of Papua New Guinea and Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka of Fiji have acknowledged the issue of under-representation of women in politics. But what is the solution? Institutional measures such as gender quotas are an option, and have been successful in raising the numbers of elected women in parliaments across the world. Such measures are not frequently used in the Pacific, however, and have been subject to backlash and manipulation. Neither the Fiji nor the Papua New Guinea government has shown much enthusiasm for introducing parliamentary gender quotas.
Quotas are just one option in the political toolkit to increase women’s representation and throughout the region coalitions like the Fiji Women’s Forum and Papua New Guinea’s “Vote Women for Change” movement are developing innovative and locally-led approaches to tackling the issue. Supporting these efforts is important, as is, crucially, maintaining pressure on the male-dominated governments of the Pacific region to ensure the under-representation of women in parliaments does not drop off the political agenda. It is not enough to sit back and wait for change to happen. The history of women’s political representation in the Pacific region tells us that progress is not guaranteed – it has to be guarded, and continually fought for.
Kerryn Baker is a Fellow in the Department of Pacific Affairs at the ANU. Her research focuses on elections, electoral reform, and women’s political leadership in the Pacific Islands. She is the author of Pacific Women in Politics: Gender Quota Campaigns in the Pacific (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019).
Theresa Meki is a Pacific Research Fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs at the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia and the Pacific. Her research focuses on women’s participation in Papua New Guinea elections and women’s representation in Melanesia more broadly.
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