We need to do better by our women leaders

By Rt Hon. Helen Clark and Munkhtuya Altangerel

March 19, 2024
Women in Power Forum

Participants at the Pacific Women in Power Forum in Auckland, New Zealand.

Photo: UNDP

When it comes to women’s political participation, numbers matter. There is no escaping the reality that less than seven per cent of Pacific politicians are women, compared to 27 per cent globally. In the Pacific, women's representation in politics languishes as the worst in any region in the world.

Nonetheless women continue to aspire to be elected, and some are. In Nauru, two of the 19 seats in parliament are held by women; in the Republic of the Marshall Islands Hilda Heine was recently sworn in again as President; and in Samoa, seven of 54 seats are held by women, including that of the Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa. In 2022, Gloria Julia King became the first women elected to the Vanuatu Parliament in almost 14 years, and in Bougainville – where the Autonomous Region’s House of Representatives reserves three seats for women, – the most recent election saw two women win open seats.    

A shift in attitudes across the Pacific is driving change. February saw the Pacific Women in Power Forum take place for the first time since the pandemic. The event saw 11 Pacific Parliaments represented, with attendees including a Provincial Governor, Deputy Speaker, Ministers, Opposition Leaders, MPs, and the all-important support staff who keep the wheels of any parliament turning.  

Discussions at the Pacific Women in Power Forum once again showed that for a parliament to truly represent its people, it must reflect the society it exists to serve. While free and fair institutions are crucial, democracy's heart lies in inclusive human rights for all, including underrepresented groups like women, as well as young people, minorities, and people with a disability. If we hope to realize 'true democracy', that cannot exist while half of our world's voices are silenced and excluded from public decision-making.

Through collaborations like the Pacific Women in Power Forum and regional initiatives supporting Temporary Special Measures, progress is being made. But progress is slow. While girls in the Pacific are demonstrably outperforming boys in educational attainment, this success doesn't translate proportionately into representation in senior leadership positions, or to politics. This raises a critical question: what are the roadblocks preventing the Pacific’s dynamic, capable women from reaching their full potential in these crucial spaces? What are women’s leadership pathways?  

"Women's fight for equality cannot be a solitary one, true progress hinges on collective action."

The urgency for action is undeniable. As a recent UNDP report on Human Development highlights, achieving gender equality and the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 5, faces alarming delays – the 2030 agenda is projected to be reached 35 years late, in 2065. Turning that trend around requires champions at all levels, including men in positions of power like politicians and decision-makers. Women's fight for equality cannot be a solitary one, true progress hinges on collective action.

What can we do to accelerate change? We can start with mentoring and peer-learning programmes for current MPs across the Pacific, with a particular focus on providing guidance, expertise, and network building opportunities to young women who have entered the political space. UNDP will support this through regional peer networks for women MPs, serving as a reminder that women leaders across the Pacific are not alone; we are stronger as one.

We must also leverage the goodwill of the international development community, whose global reach and influence over social media platforms can be a powerful advocate against online abuse. The vile behavior of online trolls and sexist keyboard warriors is a major deterrent to women who are thinking about standing for public office, who understandably do not want to become the target for harassment and threats through social media. This scourge also dents the resilience of women MPs once elected, making it more difficult to stay in politics once the glass ceiling has been shattered. We must leverage our collective influence to end the abhorrent, vile, and unlawful attacks which women in public service and the public eye endure daily.

At the policy level, UNDP and other development actors can better recognize the specific barriers faced by women in the context of each country across the Pacific, such as cultural norms and/or limited access to resources, and tailor our support accordingly, while assisting governments in developing national strategies and programs specifically aimed at promoting women's political participation. And, finally, UNDP can work with its government partners to review and revise discriminatory laws and policies which continue to hinder women's participation in political processes.

Some of these measures may be seen as baby steps, but any step forward – given that we remain at the starting line, for the most part – is progress made. While incremental progress is evident, a concerted, integrated approach is crucial to achieve lasting change. This aligns with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s principles of joint and coordinated support, where collective action delivers greater impact. We acknowledge the valuable contributions of partners like the Governments of Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, but the fight for gender equality demands a broader front. We call upon additional partners to join the cause and support comprehensive initiatives which prepare women leaders and gender champions at all levels, from local communities to national parliaments. 

Rt Hon. Helen Clark is the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former UNDP Administrator. Ms. Munkhtuya Altangerel is the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji Resident Representative.