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Helping women make their mark in the Asia Pacific

Rt Hon Winston Peters - Minister of Foreign Affairs

12 June 2006

Helping women make their mark in the Asia Pacific

Speech to Asia Pacific Women MPs Conference Banquet Hall, Parliament

It is a pleasure to be here today. Thank you to those who have organised this event, and a warm welcome to all those who have attended from around the Asia-Pacific region.

As many of you may be aware, upon becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs, enhancing New Zealand's impact in our neighbourhood, the Pacific, became a key priority.

There are several aspects to this challenge – from addressing security and development issues, through to focusing our aid effort to ensure we get the best possible outcomes for all involved.

One of the key aspects to New Zealand's involvement in our region is our determination to promote good governance through democratic mechanisms.

It is worth making the point here that trying to succinctly define democracy is a bit like trying to hold up a jellyfish for examination.

While we have a general impression of what it will look like, its exact form and shape moulds itself to the hands that are holding it up, and so no two ever look exactly the same.

And so it is with democracy. While most liberal democratic nations display several similar features, almost all are modified according to the people who are implementing them.

And because of the inherent nature of democracies – that is that they should ultimately aim to reflect the will of the people – they do change and modify over time.

While genuine progress has been made in this region in pursuing democratic ideals, some parts of the Asia Pacific region face very real challenges on this front.

One of the most prominent of these challenges is the lack of women in decision-making at all levels.

We cannot escape the simple facts in relation to the absence of women in key decision-making bodies.

Despite countless international, regional and national commitments to equal participation by women and men in decision making at all levels, women remain severely under-represented in parliaments and decision-making bodies across the Pacific region.

Six Pacific Island countries, including the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Tuvalu have no women members of parliament.

This problem is not new and does not occur in a political and social vacuum or without a context.

A 1994 Pacific Platform for Action on the Advancement of Women (PPA) highlighted shared decision-making as a critical area of concern.

Many Forum Island Countries (FICs) are signatory to CEDAW, which includes Article 7 on non-discrimination in political and public life. In fact, Pacific Islands Forum leaders highlighted the need to address the low participation of women in all levels of decision-making processes and structures in 2004.

Internationally, Millennium Development Goal 3 (MDG 3) 'to promote gender equality and empower women' includes a specific indicator on the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments.

But we must confront the reality that the Pacific fares worst in the world in terms of women in politics, alongside countries in the Middle East. This is not a proud record, but it is one that can be turned around and rectified.

Let us return to the point I made earlier about democracies adapting and evolving over time.

It was the eminent 17th century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill who was among the earliest proponents of the emancipation of women, championing their active participation in political matters long before it was fashionable within the Westminster political system.

The reasoning behind Mill's stand is as salient today for the Pacific as it was to a modernising Britain, that is to quote Mill: "it is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality that is".

Mill's point about the lack of women's participation being a "hindrance to human development" was insight then, but is critical now.

If Asia-Pacific nations are to maximise their potential on all fronts, politically socially and in particular economically, then the full intellectual capacity of women must be harnessed and utilised.

It is simply not possible to fully embrace a modern, knowledge-based, vibrant society without the active participation of all those within that society.

This transition is not always easy. Despite his strong advocacy for women's emancipation, John Stuart Mill did not see it materialise as a reality in his lifetime.

While New Zealand has a proud democratic tradition of being the first nation to embrace universal suffrage, that was not our starting point – it was part of an evolutionary progression within our democracy.

Indeed we have had many transitory points of progress within our democracy to improve the role of women in our political system – the most recent of course being the transition to MMP which has resulted in a marked increase in the number of women in parliament.

Democracy often clashes with cultural norms when it comes to the issue of gender. This is a very real and complex issue – but not an insurmountable one. Tradition and democratic progress need not be mutually exclusive.

The hybrid outcomes which can be achieved when the principles of democracy are fused and incorporated into traditional power systems are part of the modified democracies alluded to earlier – your version of the jellyfish so to speak.

But we must confront some tough realities.

When tradition and culture explicitly excludes women from decision-making, then this is a hindrance to progress.

This is as much a reality when we consider decision making at the highest levels of parliaments in the region, but also in the delivery arm of government, the bureaucracy, and at regional and local governance levels.

Let me put it this way – more women MPs in and of itself will not resolve this challenge unless it is matched by an equal and similar commitment by all levels of governance and decision-making.

While it is easy to drift toward esoteric feel-good statements when addressing these types of issues, let us consider in real terms just what New Zealand is doing to contribute to progress on this front through its aid programme.

In 2005/06, NZAID has been updating its gender policy to reflect the agency’s mandate of poverty elimination, core geographical focus on the Pacific, the global initiative to improve aid effectiveness, recent international commitments including the UN Millennium Declaration and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and evolving international gender equality best practice.
NZAID is working actively to enhance gender equality and women’s representation in governance at national and regional levels in the Pacific.

Strengthening governance is a priority objective of NZAID’s Draft Pacific Strategy. All NZAID assistance in the Pacific will include objectives in strengthening governance and human rights.

In particular, the strategy states that NZAID will focus on enhancing the skills and experience of political and community leaders, particularly women. NZAID’s Pacific Leadership Development Strategy similarly places a priority on enhancing the role of women in governance at all levels.

NZAID mainstreams gender and human rights through all our bilateral and regional programmes. A mainstreaming approach means that NZAID dedicates significant resources to support initiatives that seek to enhance gender equality as well as ensuring all initiatives consider and actively address gender in their design and implementation.

It also means that at the policy level, NZAID actively engages with key actors at the national, regional and international level to promote and enhance women’s role in governance.

An example of NZAID’s current activity is supporting civic and voter education in Solomon Islands and Fiji. The objective of these programmes is to enhance community awareness and understanding of political processes and governance.

The need to facilitate greater representation of women within parliaments, as well as building the capacity of women to engage in political process, are important components of these programmes.

Under NZAID’s Pacific bilateral programmes, funding has been made available to civil society organisations and government partners to build capacity in CEDAW awareness, gender mainstreaming, and to support advocacy for women’s empowerment.

NZAID provides core funding to several women’s NGO’s in the Pacific, including Punanga Tauturu in the Cook Islands, Samoa Women in Business, the Centre for Women and Children in Tonga and Solomon Islands.

At the regional level, NZAID provides core funding to key regional agencies including SPC and the Forum Secretariat. NZAID also has a multi-year strategic partnership with UNIFEM for their work in the Pacific, which has included support for CEDAW implementation and Women in Politics programme.

Recent examples of initiatives funded through the Pacific Programme for Strengthening Governance include Pacific participation at the 2005 Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) Triennial Forum, the 1000 Women for Peace Pacific campaign, and support for the “Strengthening Pacific Women’s Advocacy” coordinated by the Pacific branch of DAWN.

Under the recently established Pacific Leadership Development programme, NZAID is funding the Annual Prime Minister’s Fellowship for Emerging Pacific Women Leaders, which enables six Pacific women to attend a well recognised leadership development programme at the Women in Public Policy Program, Harvard University.

Other examples of NZAID support to enhancing gender equality in the Pacific include:

- Punanga Tauturu (Cook Islands), a women’s counselling centre that works towards eliminating family violence and sexual assault through the provision of support to women and children subjected to violence. It also raises community awareness about women and children’s rights. NZAID has funded a three-year package of assistance of core and programming costs.

- The Centre for Women and Children (Tonga), which provides counselling, advisory, training and other services for women victims of violence. NZAID has provided core and programming costs since 2001.

- Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency (PNG), which works to strengthen families and communities to deal with domestic violence, rape, and child abuse through a network of village counsellors throughout the province. Core funding has been provided for 12 months. Short-term technical assistance is being provided to improve LNDWA operational and financial monitoring systems with a view to longer-term NZAID funding.

- Samoa NGO Support Fund. This supports the strengthening of civil society through the provision of core funding and targeted capacity-building support for indigenous organisations. Groups currently receiving support under this scheme include Women in Business, and Mapusaga O Aiga, a key women’s NGO in Samoa.

- Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police Secretariat. NZAID provides core funding to the secretariat, including the Women's Advisory Network, which was established to support women police in the Pacific and address issues of gender inequality and discrimination in the force.

- The Regional Rights and Resources Trust. This is a Pacific-grown organisation that provides technical advice and training on human rights and the principles and practices of democracy to governments, regional agencies and civil society organisations throughout the Pacific. RRRT places a particular focus on enhancing the rights of women and encouraging women’s role in governance at all levels. NZAID has a strategic partnership arrangement with RRRT that comprises $6 million over five years for core and programme funding.

These are a few concrete examples of New Zealand's commitment to meeting its objective of enhancing the role of women in decision-making in our region.
However the real challenge lies at the local level, where local leaders and communities must embrace real change.

For New Zealand, there is no question that one of the key drivers for us in working with the Pacific Island countries to help them reach their potential is enhancing the role women play in governance and decision making.

To not include women only limits a nations potential, and that is not desirable for any nation.

So in conclusion, let me say that I welcome the work that this conference is promoting and let us all work toward a brighter future for our Pacific neighbourhood in which we all, both men and women, play a full part.

Thank you.


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