Published on 7th December 2016
All too often, women and girls carry the heaviest load: they're more likely to be poor, less likely to be represented in their country's government.
When women are involved in leadership and decision-making, and when girls get the same access to education as boys, the entire country benefits with better social, environmental and economic development outcomes.
Pacific countries have some of the lowest rates of participation by women in parliament and local government in the world. There are actually more Tongan women MPs in New Zealand’s Parliament (two) than in Tonga's (none). To quote UN Women, “This absence of women in decision-making and leadership in the Pacific is largely a result of negative gender stereotypes, encouraged by socio-cultural norms and processes such as inherently biased justice structures and systems.”
Two VSA volunteers taking big steps to build a culture that is more accepting of women’s rights and improving justice systems in the Pacific are Althea Lambert and Martin Child.
Althea has recently started her assignment in Timor-Leste working as part of UN Women’s End Violence Against Women programme. “If women and children cannot live free from violence, the economic health of a country is severely compromised and for a new vibrant nation like Timor-Leste, this spells disaster,” she says.
And there is clearly a problem: in Timor-Leste two out of three women have experienced either physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.
But to implement significant social change, the legal tools need to be in place. As Althea notes, "In 2010, Timor-Leste’s Law Against Domestic Violence was passed, and this gave the long-awaited leverage for violence prevention interventions to be planned for and budgeted for at national level. It signalled that impunity for perpetrators was no longer acceptable."
Getting laws like that in place is what drives Martin Child. He’s based in Fiji but works around the Pacific at the parliamentary and civil leadership level to help nations meet their obligations to the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). That means helping them report on and assess their legal and social status regarding gender justice, then meet the recommendations that come back from the United Nations.
It can be a long process, but as Martin says, "When we get significant policy or legislative change, it’s obviously really rewarding."
"One of the big issues is discriminatory legislation – there’s a lot of outdated legislation particularly in terms of sexual assault, and not recognising rape within marriage. Often, just getting a sexual assault from police to courts to prosecution can be incredibly difficult."
In the face of such overwhelming challenges it could be easy to despair, but the people that Martin works with are a source of immense inspiration.
"When we get together in a room with advocates from the community and the government and they all want the same thing, and they've been pushing for it long before I came and will keep doing it long after I leave – when I see that level of dedication, passion and sheer persistence, I always walk away a little bit less cynical and a little bit more hopeful."
Nearly 6,000 kilometres away, Althea echoes that sentiment. "I came to Timor-Leste to do this job – working for women, for gender equality and to help take us forward from being stuck in the circles of abuse and violence, of suffering and harm. We work together, side by side. Our struggles are the same – and our joys."