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THE Pacific journey for the next three years to maximise benefits and achieve positive impact on the lives of women and girls in the region begins now following a successful four-day conference in Fiji last month. More than 200 women from 21 countries and territories reached consensus in an outcome document which will be the guiding policy for advancing the Pacific’s gender equality agenda in the next three years.
Women leaders also discussed the economic standing of 4.5 million women and girls across the greater Pacific region. Despite making up half the region’s population, women continue to be economically under-represented due to discriminatory laws, and the social and cultural norms which place unrealistic expectations on their responsibilities for home and family care. Pacific Community director-general Dr Colin Tukuitonga said the conference covered some good grounds to strengthen political commitment and facilitate the enabling environment required to pursue gender equality.
WHEN Janet Ramo of Malaita in Solomon Islands started her business 32 years ago, she had one thing in mind - money. With $5 in her pocket, a sewing machine and two pieces of garments given to her by her husband, Ramo left no stone unturned but headed to the small town of Auki and started her business.
The 51-year-old mother of four makes close to $600 a fortnight as a seamstress, targeting working women in Honiara. Her theories are simple, work hard, never give up and believe in her dreams. Like other women vendors in Malaita, Ramo shared her untold stories of the struggles she endured to make ends meet for her family.
At the market, she said, her life was always at risk. “There are no security, and we have to sleep on the floor without proper beddings,” she said, while trying to contain her emotions. “Some women came with their children, without proper facilities, they have to sleep and eat at the market and return to their homes when their products are all sold.”
THE adoption of the Revised Pacific Platform for Action for Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights during the deliberations of the 13th Pacific Triennial Conference on Women and the 6th Meeting of Women’s Ministers convened by the Pacific Community (SPC) marks an important journey for the Pacific region. A journey which needs to tackle a dearth of social, economic, environmental and political challenges.
Minister Mereseini Vuniwaqa, Minister of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation in Fiji, who chaired the conference, is pleased with the outcomes: “Apart from setting a roadmap on next steps, it also allows us as a government to measure what we have been doing so far, whether that is the direction that the region, as an entity, is taking and what it is that we can do differently and do better,” she said.
“We have identified some key challenges, as a government, from this particular meeting: data, the lack of data here in our nation, to drive and inform policy-making. We see that as a challenge and I am glad it has come out very strongly in the outcome document as well.”
FIJI lacks the data to drive and inform policy-making, a challenge that was identified during the four-day 13 Triennial Conference of Pacific Women at Novotel, in Lami.
Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation, Fiji Mereseini Vuniwaqa said there were key issues collateral to the empowerment of women, gender based violence which they were grappling in Fiji.
She said there would be a multi-sectoral approach, from different sectors, in infrastructure, in health and other sectors of the economy that will impact on the empowerment of women.
“So I am very happy with the outcomes document and the revised PPA and I am certain that we can go back now as a ministry and as a country to revisit what we have been doing and use the yardsticks that has been provided at this forum as a way to do a preliminary evaluation of what we are doing so far and what we can do better,” Vuniwaqa said.
“Apart from setting a roadmap on next steps, it also allows us as a government to measure what we have been doing so far, whether that is the direction that the region, as an entity taking and what it is that we can do differently and do better.”
According to Pacific Community (SPC) Director General Colin Tukuitonga, empowerment and gender equality have been the subject of talks within Pacific Island countries for decades, but somehow remain “ sluggish”.
While analaysing the outcome of the 13th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women and Sixth Meeting of Pacific Ministers for Women meeting, Tukuitonga said the document became the navigation chart or road map because it contained the collective submissions on what countries regarded as important.
“So for us now the challenge is set up funds, partnerships, the relationships, the resources that we need to make this happen,” Tukuitonga said.
“I am encouraged in particular with the endorsement of the pacific action plan and I am a little impatient with policy that is not followed with action.”
Tukuitonga, however, was keen on some actions which actually help Pacific Island countries to move forward despite the SPC viewing the outcomes document as a shopping list.
He said the document gave guidance on what participants regarded as important and what was needed to move this agenda forward.
APPROXIMATELY 80per cent of all market vendors in the Pacific are women, and these earnings make up a significant portion of incomes of many poor households.
In spite of their contribution to the local economy and to markets, women are often excluded from market governance and decision-making
“Though people see market vendors as ordinary women, their contribution in terms of the money earned and contributed to the economy is very important,” said Maureen Sariki, President of Honiara City MVA in Solomon Islands.
Women leaders of market vendor associations (MVA) from Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, shared their stories of hardship and success at the 13th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women and 6th Meeting of Pacific Ministers for Women in Suva
As President of the MVA, Ms Sariki has built strong relationships with the local government resulting in market vendors now being consulted in the development of market budgets and plans.
Also from Solomon Islands, Janet Ramo, President of the Auki MVA, says that before the Markets 4 Change (M4C) project, “[the women of Malaita] don’t have an understanding and discipline of the importance of saving – many are intimidated by formal banking – also there is almost no interest and the fees are high.”
In response, Ms Ramo used the structure of the market vendor association, plus the skills learned in M4C financial literacy training to start a local savings and loan scheme and a cooperative store – improving accessibility of financial services to market vendors and encouraging saving and investment in livelihoods.
“With this project, I see myself as a business woman – I no longer look down on myself – I am happy,” added Ms Ramo.
When asked about the success of the MVAs, Ms Sariki said “market managers are now referring issues from market vendors back to the MVA to resolve, we are leaders and have the power to make decisions.”
Leisavi, from Port Vila, Vanuatu, started as a market vendor but quickly became interested in joining the MVA.
As Vice President of Silae Vanua market, she participated in trainings on financial literacy, agriculture, communications and leadership, as well as attended workshops on disaster resilience and helped organize events.
“I want to learn more, so I applied to the Australia Pacific Technical College (APTC) and I was lucky to be selected to study Certificate 4 on Community Development” said Leisavi.
These women, through the MVAs, are leading, representing and advocating for the needs of all market vendors, specifically women, working in the informal economy.
“The Northern Islands have many market vendors who want to sell at the market and the MVA helps give equal time between all in the market so it is fair for everyone” said Melody Leo, Executive Committee member of Northern Islands MVA in Vanuatu, explaining the complex rotational system that the Luganville market put in place after the MVAs met and agreed on a system that would be fair to all.