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Gender, Politics and Conflict Symposium - Harre

Office of the Hon Laila Harré
Minister of Women's Affairs
Minister of Youth Affairs
Associate Minister of Commerce
Associate Minister of Labour

Commonwealth South Pacific Regional Symposium
on Gender, Politics and Conflict/Peace
Parliament Buildings
Wellington, New Zealand
16-19 June 2000

Opening Address – 9.30am
Legislative Council Chamber

Good morning.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome to New Zealand guests from the Commonwealth and South Pacific countries that are committed to improving the status of women.

Over the next few days we will discuss ways we can collectively improve women’s representation and participation in political decision-making and conflict resolution. As we go about our work, two of our South Pacific neighbours are faced with major conflicts. In both the Solomon Islands and Fiji women are being forced to deal with major crises brought about by violent means.

Our participation in this meeting demonstrates our belief that the promotion of women’s involvement in conflict resolution and the reconstruction of communities is critical for our region.

In both the Solomon Islands and Fiji many women and children are being forced to deal with the consequences of arguments of others’ making. In Fiji 31 politicians are still held hostage. Among those who were taken when George Speight mounted his attempted coup were five women MPs, including four Ministers, three of whom are still held along with another MP. Two of these, Marieta Ringamoto and Lavenia Padarath had been invited to be with us today. Perhaps, this Symposium might send a message of solidarity to all women in Fiji and the Solomons who are affected by events in their country, and a special message to the hostages in the Parliamentary complex in Suva.

The situation in Fiji and the Solomons, although very dramatic in Pacific terms, is not unique to these two countries, and many of you here this morning will have stories to tell that illustrate the huge and ongoing impact that confrontation and armed conflict around the world has on humanity.

I want to pay special tribute to our Honourable guest from the Solomon Islands, the Minister of Women, Youth and Sport, Hilda Kari. Since Hilda took over these portfolios earlier in the year she has been leading a work programme aimed at boosting women’s participation in the peacemaking process. Having recently visited her country, I can attest to the high regard many observers have for her efforts in this area.

I also acknowledge that she has a strong precedent to draw from within our own region. The women of Bougainville were essential actors in the peacemaking process in that country and we know that the long-term development of our region relies on the active engagement, participation and representation of women.

This weekend there are many objectives that we can aim to meet. One is our task to develop a Pan Commonwealth Strategy for future action on gender politics and peace processes. Perhaps a more immediate aim should be to give participants from our region who are facing the day to day questions of conflict resolution our solidarity and an assurance that they have our collective support as their neighbours and fellow Commonwealth country people to work for peace and to do so peacefully.

We have an opportunity to say to our Commonwealth leadership that women, and their organisations, must be seen as central to conflict resolution. Women are constantly called on to make peace in their homes and communities. Where women speak out for peace, as in Fiji, the Commonwealth has a duty to facilitate their involvement.

The question of gender and politics is one to which many pay lip service but few have over recent years made a real commitment. The further that important decisions move from communities, to nation states, and beyond those to international institutions, the harder it is for women to engage in decision-making.

And yet women, along with others who lack economic power, rely mostly on good political process. Politics, in its broadest sense, is the only means we have at our disposal to transcend inequality. True democracy enables us to make decisions about how we want the world to be. Big gains have been made by women through politics. Gains that we would never have made if we were to rely only on market power.

While we must of course be concerned, and will be during this weekend work, with the formal representation of women at the level of local and national government, we must also focus on the many other institutions within our society in which important decisions are made with significant effects on the lives of women.

Indeed, by making it possible for women to engage in decision-making within families, workplaces and communities, we make it much more likely that women will be able to engage in decision-making in government.

For this reason it is vital that not only political representatives but everybody turns their mind to the issue of gender and politics. It is simply not enough for women to be part of the political process. It is also vital that the political process is aimed at meeting the real needs that women have when it comes to making public policy that reflects the reality of women’s lives.

While we have rid our statute books of formal discrimination against women, all too often we make the assumption that a law which appears neutral on the surface has the same effects for everybody. Unless we delve into the real experience of women, and different groups of women then gender equality is not going to be achieved.

Recently in New Zealand we have been reminded of the hostility of some sections of society to laws that better reflect the experiences of women.

Corrections Minister Matt Robson's suggestion that women prison inmates be allowed to spend more time with their children was met with outrage by some within our community. My colleague was simply making the point that for a breast-feeding mother being imprisoned is a much higher penalty than that imposed on anyone else in her situation.

Public debate around the issue of paid maternity leave has also exposed the narrow approach taken by many to issues of discrimination. A business commentator from New Zealand's largest newspaper, for instance, stated that providing paid maternity leave was a cross subsidy from parents to non-parents and therefore unfair.

Moves by this government to recognise women's unvalued contribution to a relationship have also met with some very nasty responses. The proposed legislation recognises that when a relationship ends, the division of function within that relationship can leave some women in a position of economic disadvantage. Critics have labelled the new bill a "gold diggers bill".

These three examples are all connected to women's roles as mothers, but when we suggest moves that affirm this role we still face hostility. Most often this comes from the very people who would like to limit women to our caregiving role.

The point they are missing is that parenting is an essential human role, and even those who choose not to do it themselves rely on the people who do parent to do it well.

To wrap up, I will share with you a passage from a resource put out by Women Building Peace that I recently had the pleasure of launching.

“Peace is a way of being. Conflict itself is not the issue – very positive changes have come out of conflict. Violent expression of conflict is the issue and we must find win/win answers where there is conflict.

A culture of peace is strong. It results in a more caring society where children learn self-respect leading to responsible actions. In a culture of peace the values of honesty, compassion, respect and justice are paramount.

Without justice there is no lasting peace”.

I wish you well for the Symposium.

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