Atenasi Ata-Wasuka: Leader in waiting?

Working with RAMSI on governance reforms has only heightened Atenasi Ata-Wasuka’s interest in playing a direct role in taking her country forward.

While getting into politics is a challenge in any country, for a Solomon Islands woman, it appears almost impossible.

“We are all still worrying about our day-to-day lives and getting food on the table. We haven’t reached that place where we can push that aside and unite on common issues, like better education,” says Atenasi Ata-Wasuka, who once held ambitions of a career in politics but now is not so sure.

There have only been two women elected to Solomon Islands’ parliament in the 34 years since independence. The first was Hilda Kari in 1989. The second is Vika Lusibaea who won the seat previously held by her husband, the former militant turned politician, Jimmy Lusibaea, through a by-election in August last year.

According to Ms Ata-Wasuka, the Solomon Islands political landscape is ‘fickle’. At national elections, the average turnover of MPs is about 50%.

Disbursements of MPs’ discretionary ‘constituency development funds’ are notorious for rewarding voters or ‘wantoks’, rather than based on addressing community development needs.

MPs are regarded more like ATMs instead of advocates for their community’s broader needs. Political parties are usually only active just prior to and during elections and MPs once elected into parliament often cross the floor with little regard for policy or ideology.

This fluidity of Solomon Islands politics also presents a challenge for female candidates who cannot rely on established parties for support or political experience.

Solomon Islands’ traditional belief in ‘big man’ leadership also means that leadership in many communities is seen as exclusively a male domain.

Ms Ata-Wasuka believes that a lack of a common national agenda for women and of active consensus-building around women’s issues contribute to why women find it difficult to be elected into parliament.

But she holds the hope that Solomon Islands’ political systems will progress naturally to the point that would see women benefit from greater representation in parliament. She pins that hope on goodwill.

“Solomon Islanders are getting more information and are now more sophisticated in how to use it in decision-making and making alternative choices,” she says.

“People are becoming aware of what their representatives can and cannot do. And we see a lot more coming together of women at the community level.

“There is hope. There is still a sense of goodness in people. Even though at this stage our systems cannot match our realities, we are going to get there, and that sense of goodness and kindness to each other will guide that.”

In-between high school and university, she worked with the Solomon Islands Electoral Commission as a data entry officer. 

“I was a member of the team putting in details of newly registered voters. It was a very personal and symbolic work as these were the first general elections since the ethnic tensions. I was asked to remain after the initial data-entry exercise to QA the data entered. I was often called on to contribute to logistics-discussions that ranged from petty-cash allocations (how much is enough?) to allowances for election officers, to ships and routes (if ship leaves on date x would ballot papers make it in time for polling day?).

Before joining AusAID in 2007, Ms Ata-Wasuka was a staff of the Solomon Islands National Parliament. She worked as a graduate researching issues at the request of the Speaker (at that time Sir Peter Kenilorea) and MPs. She also had responsibility to support the Office of the Auditor General, then headed by Augustine Floyd Fatai, in its role as Secretary to the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee. It was here that she got her first taste of politics.

Her past experience and work with AusAID in electoral and parliamentary institutional strengthening, and RAMSI’s Women in Government Programme have given her good insights into her country’s political system.

She currently manages RAMSI’s Public Service Improvement Programme which aims to improve skills and leadership of public servants.

The programme also supports the government’s desire to better manage its 15000-strong public service.

“It can be challenging and very frustrating. There can be ups and downs in a week, even in a day in the programme. But it is still very interesting.”

The programme is also undergoing a big change as RAMSI moves towards transition in June 2013. RAMSI’s transition recognises the progress that Solomon Islands has made over the past nine years. The process will involve the withdrawal of the military component and the transfer of the development assistance programme to bilateral arrangements. The Participating Police Force component will be the focus of RAMSI from 2013 onwards.

“RAMSI’s transition comes at a good time,” Ms Ata-Wasuka explains. “Our government officers are becoming more confident in what they do and subsequently, what they propose as solutions to issues.”

A mother of two, she also adds a degree in Marine Science. She is also a former Miss Solomon Islands. In her spare time, she enjoys creating with local materials and fabrics. In July last year, she was part of a group of local designers whose creations were displayed at the regional fashion show during the Festival of Pacific Arts.

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