UN Commission on the Status of Women Reviews ‘Pacific Realities’

The Pacific Islands region is comprised of 22 nations, with a combined population of roughly 9 million, more than half of which live in Papua New Guinea. The island nations present a range of complex and unique issues for development and gender-equality efforts, including entrenched social attitudes that limit women’s ability to pursue education and career performance equal to those available to men, benefitting women’s autonomy and society broadly.

A panel of presenters from several of the island nations spoke of the need to conceive “gender-responsive programs” that are able to grasp women’s real immediate interests and implement relevant strategies for improving conditions for them across Pacific island society.

Veena Singh Bryar, of the femLINKPACIFIC network, reported on the development of FemTalk radio, a “rural women’s media network” designed to help give a voice to women whose influence on policy normally limited and to serve as a platform for educating women and men about issues and rights that determine women’s autonomy and equality in society.

Among the issues they seek to find solutions for: women’s personal security, education, production (be it biological, economic —paid and unpaid— and because it is necessary to find ways to recognize and reward that production). Economic rights, including the right to property, determine in many areas a woman’s real autonomy and ability to shape her own life and experience.

The mounting risk of HIV/AIDS to the Pacific Island nations was also discussed in some detail. Throughout the two weeks of the 53rd Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the risk of infection was linked to women’s rights and economic independence.

Women who are bound to the home or unable to pursue independent careers or accumulate property are less able to take preventive action to avoid infection. Women who are entirely dependent on their husbands have less leverage to demand use of condoms, which means men may infect their wives, if they have had other partners.

Sex work is an increasing problem in the Pacific Island nations, long protected from the AIDS pandemic by geography and demographics. The islands’ small populations afforded fewer opportunities for the spread of the disease, but as population has shifted to urban centers (now over 50% in 10 of the 22 nations), sex workers have been “imported” from larger Asian nations, bringing with them the added risk of infection for both men and women in the island societies.

A number of the presenters spoke of the need to fully implement and the meet the objectives of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW has been ratified by 185 countries, but has yet to become a truly binding global standard for women’s equality and has not yet been brought before the US Senate for ratification.

WomensTreaty.org explains some of the false assumptions that have led to conservative opposition to CEDAW in the US:

» Fiction: The Treaty will destroy traditional families by redefining “family” and the roles of women and men.

» Fact: The Treaty does not seek to regulate family life. It only urges governments “to adopt education and public information programs [to] eliminate prejudices and current practices that hinder the full operation of the principle of the social equality of women.”

»» Fiction: The Treaty will require the United States and other countries to send women into armed ground combat.

»» Fact: The Treaty does not require countries to send women into combat. In fact, there is no reference in the Treaty to women in the military or women in combat. In addition, the 1997 CEDAW Committee report urging “full participation of women in the military” is not a requirement but an observation that women’s absence in military decision-making councils hampers diplomacy, negotiations, and peacekeeping and peace-making efforts and neglects to take note of the effect upon women and families of military decisions in times of conflict.

»»» Fiction: The Treaty will interfere in the proper role of parents in child-rearing.

»»» Fact: The Treaty calls only for recognition of the “common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children” and “to promote what is in the best interests of the child.” This is consistent with U.S. law.

Ofa ki-Levuka-Guttenbeil-Likiliki, of the Tonga National Center for Women and Children, explained the slow history of evolving women’s equality in her country. While in 1975, only 1% of parliament ministers were women, the 2005 Tonga elections had 5 female candidates, the most ever. In 2008, no women entered Parliament, and only one woman serves as MP at present.

She said that Tonga women’s groups are working with NGOs and agencies across the island nations to examine the need for “temporary special measures” that could assist in bringing more women into politics and raise their representation in Parliament. During the Q&A session after the panel discussion, a woman who works for women’s rights in Rwanda explained that there the temporary measures used to involve women in politics require alternating between men and women in each party.

There is stiff opposition from the traditional power-base to implementing temporary special measures that could interfere with some politicians’ own careers or influence and destabilize traditional cultural structures, which at present limit women’s access to leadership and decision-making, but which are prized by conservatives as structures that maintain family structure.

Kairangi Samuela, of the Cook Islands Women’s Counseling Center explained how cultural standards are used as an excuse for not advancing women’s rights further, but also noted that cultural imperatives are fluid and can evolve as the mentality or education and experience of a population evolve. In fact, Pacific Island society is now more in need of women in public life than before, and would benefit from tapping the individual talents and insights of women who may, even now, not be able to access positions of leadership or decision-making.

Paternity leave is an area of law which is underdeveloped in the Cook Islands, according to Samuela, and which if implemented seriously could help free women to study and pursue careers of their own. The stereotype that “a woman’s place is in the home” means women are expected to abandon work or study and devote their full attention to child-rearing and caregiving, which impedes their ability to access longer-term work or career opportunities.

Paternity leave, or an egalitarian family leave law, would allow for men to take on some of the joint reponsibility traditionally assigned solely to women, so that women can experience some of the responsibility and decision-making authority traditionally reserved for men. The issue is not mixing gender roles, but rather shared responsibility, so that women can realized their abilities and serve society by taking leadership roles and aiding in decision-making processes.

Peone Fuimaono, of the Somoa AIDS Foundation, noted the rates of HIV/AIDS across the 22 nations of the Pacific Islands region remains relatively low, as compared to high-concentration regions, but that rates are showing a steady upward trend. This is due, in part, to a concentration of conditions suitable for higher risk of spreading the disease: a youthful population, high incidence of youth SDI (sexually transmitted infections), cultural practices putting women at risk, increasing urban population, new wave of sex workers.

Papua New Guinea (PNG), the most populous nation in the region, sees the majority of its HIV infections from heterosexual sex. Across the rest of the region, the rate is about 50%. A lack of voluntary confidential counseling and testing centers is reportedly impeding efforts to spread awareness and prevention.

Ms. Fuimaono’s report found that between 1985 and 1990, the first full 5-year period for which there are figures, 75% of HIV infections occurred in males. But from 2000 through 2005, the infections rates were 50/50, meaning a significant rise in infection risk to women. With trends affecting women more adversely, efforts to educate women about HIV/AIDS and their own rights, as well as efforts to expand women’s autonomy and decision-making capacity in society, may be able to help limit the spread of the disease.

Each member of the panel, as well as one ambassador attending the event, spoke of the need to get government more involved in women’s issues and in the implementation of funding and strategies for education and prevention, to fight the spread of disease. International views that less populous nations suffer less gravely from such crises, due to smaller numbers, were criticized as marginalization of small nations whose populations may be impacted in the same proportion as larger nations with more visible crises.

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