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Women Advance in Distant Islands

BUALA, Solomon Islands, Dec 21 2013 (IPS) - Women’s political representation in the Pacific Islands region is globally the lowest at 3.65 percent, compared to the world average of 18 percent. Leadership is still widely perceived as ‘men’s business’ and voting is heavily influenced by nepotism and money politics. However, Rhoda Sikilabu, minister for community affairs in Isabel Province in the Solomon Islands is demonstrating that women leaders can drive development progress and win voter support.

Sikilabu did not have the same campaign funds as male candidates when she stood in the 2006 provincial election. But her unwavering commitment for more than a decade to bringing tangible improvements to rural lives that were blighted by hardship and lack of development paved the way for her landslide victory against six male candidates.

“To me, politics is helping a family to a better life, helping the family who are hungry, the elderly, the disabled, assisting communities to build toilets, providing access to solar energy,” Sikilabu told IPS in the Solomon Islands. “It is about really touching people’s lives.”

In a nation of more than 900 islands covered in dense tropical rainforest with few roads and widely scattered villages, the challenges of campaigning were enormous. Touring communities involved sleeping in the bush, swimming across flooded rivers and travelling by canoe in stormy weather.

It was the first time that remote communities in Isabel Province, which has a population of about 30,000, witnessed women bidding for election. Although society in Isabel is matrilineal, Sikilabu explained that habitually “boys are sent to school and that’s the beginning of this idea that women are not important in decision-making committees or meetings.”

While equality is enshrined in the constitution, broad acceptance of women in political power is yet to become a reality.

The World Bank reports there has been little progress in increasing women’s political representation in the Pacific region over the past decade. In the Solomon Islands only two women have been elected to the national parliament since Independence in 1978, Hilda Kari in the 1980s and recently Vika Lusibaea. In the 2010 national election, women contested 21 of 50 seats, but only received 4 percent of the vote.

On entering the provincial assembly with one other woman, Beverley Dick, Sikilabu perceived a public “desperate for change” and knew it was vital to achieve real outcomes during her first term in office.

“I said to the people, when I’m elected I will improve the things you are facing as problems in the communities,” Sikilabu said.

Water, energy, sanitation and health are some of the basic service needs in the province. Sikilabu strove first to provide electricity to the estimated 1,500 people in 16 remote communities in her ward or electorate.

“After my first four years, I had supplied solar energy systems to every family in every household in every village,” she said. “The children have light, so they can sit in the evening and do their homework. Now their pass marks are getting higher.”

Building and repairing rural health clinics that will serve more than 4,000 people is another achievement.

“Women have babies in their canoe, on the beach and children die from malaria,” Sikilabu said. “In the past we have had men leaders who haven’t done anything to address this problem.”

From the capital, Honiara, she coordinated the shipping of building materials, plumbing equipment, toilets, solar panels and water tanks to the Isabel islands to expedite work on the new clinic in Sigana ward and one under repair in Japuana ward.

“When the new clinic is open, most women will be within walking distance,” Sikilabu said. “Currently they have to paddle their canoes for up to three hours.”

Helen and Patlyn from Gurena village on the main Santa Isabel Island claimed that the efforts of local women leaders had also improved sanitation, housing and agricultural livelihoods through access to farm tools and more productive crops.

Today Isabel is home to two of the total six women in provincial governments in the country.

Through their leadership, “more social problems have been addressed and our voice is being heard on important issues, such as mining and logging,” Judy Tabiru, president of the Isabel Provincial Council of Women in Buala added.

Sikilabu has announced her candidature for the 2014 national election, and her achievements have attracted the attention of four political parties that are keen to have her join them.

However she is adamant that more elected women are needed to influence government policies and social change in a nation ranked 143 out of 187 for human development. For this to happen, addressing persistent gender inequality, in a country where female literacy is an estimated 14 percent, and increasing women’s economic and leadership capacity is critical.

“If we choose women who are educated, automatically they will have the confidence if they are elected to parliament,” Tabiru emphasised. “But for women in the provinces, they have to be trained in public speaking; they have to get more confidence.”

Isabel’s Ministry of Community Affairs conducts village training to develop female participation in decision-making and encourage their public advocacy on important community issues.

National Councils of Women, intergovernmental organisations and international donors also support women’s political aspirations in the region. In August Sikilabu spent time with the deputy speaker of the Victorian State Parliament, Christine Fyffe, as part of a regional mentoring exchange programme organised by the Australian Government’s Pacific Women’s Parliamentary Partnerships Project.

Temporary special measures, in the form of 10 reserved parliamentary seats for women, were proposed in 2008 in the Solomon Islands, but did not gain cabinet approval. Yet Sikilabu believes they are required.

“There are men and women who do not support temporary special measures. They feel it is giving special treatment to women, but in Malaita Province the women’s situation is different to mine in Isabel, so we are not all the same,” she said.

She emphasised it was also a responsibility of currently elected women to ensure that others followed in the future.

“We have to impact more women coming into government by being passionate, coming out in public and talking more and being seen to be addressing issues.”

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