Emerging Voices: Why the voice of women is essential in Nauru

August 16, 2023
Nauru coastline from Meneng Point

At just 21 km² Nauru is one of the smallest countries in the world.

Photo: UNDP

Situated 1,500km to the north of Vanuatu lies Nauru, a tiny island nation that is not only one of the smallest in the region, but at just 21 km² is one of the smallest countries in the world. A nation where the determined voices of women are seeking their rightful place in the corridors of power.

Visitors to Nauru arrive at the country's international airport, where planes take priority as they taxi across the island's main road in order to reach the terminal.

A drive around the circumference of the island can be completed in under 30 minutes. If you’re brave enough to avoid the plethora of dogs and run, or walk, you can do a lap of the island in just a few hours.

Even at Nauru's leisurely 40 km/h speed limit, the time it takes to circle the island belies the complexity of societal dynamics that influence the roles and opportunities available to women. 

Although women have achieved noteworthy positions within the Nauruan public service, it's crucial to acknowledge that cultural beliefs persist as an obstacle to their enhanced representation in the political space. One of the glaring outcomes of these barriers is the discouragement women often face when contemplating candidacy, perpetuating a status quo that yearns for transformation.

Nauru's parliament chamber

While women hold many top-ranking civil service roles, just two currently hold seats in Nauru's 19-member Parliament.

Photo: UNDP

Another significant challenge is financial accessibility. Women tend to be disproportionately affected by the high costs of funding an electoral campaign, worsened by the rule that public servants seeking office must resign.

The Nauru Electoral Taskforce Committee recommended that women candidates be allowed special election leave with pay instead of having to resign from public service positions, however this recommendation was never taken. At one point Ruby Dediya held the distinction of being the sole female MP to serve in Nauru, elected four times prior to 2013. Dediya served two terms, from 1986 to 1989 and from 1992 to 1997. 

In the 2016 general election, only four out of 67 candidates were women, making up just six percent of the total. By 2019, the number of women candidates slightly increased to five out of 60 (eight percent). In the 2022 general election, a record-breaking 14 percent of candidates were women, resulting in the election of two women to the Nauruan Parliament.

Although women's representation in politics remains modest and progress is gradual, a shift in attitudes across the island is demanding change.

For the Parliament of Nauru to effectively represent its people, the composition of the house must reflect the population it serves.

Women's Empowerment Nauru Association during their August 2023 study tour to Fiji.

Photo: UNDP

Isabella Dageago, currently serving her second term in the Nauruan Parliament, was elected as one of two women Members of Parliament for the constituency of Yaren - alongside Charmaine Scotty.

Dageago led Nauru's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included declaring a national emergency in March 2020. In April 2021, Dageago personally administered the country's first vaccine to then-President Lionel Aingimea.

“Luckily, I had some very good people around me, who I could speak with about their experiences of working in the health portfolio previously. Nursing may be my background, but we couldn’t have led a response like the one we did without leaning on those who had been in this role prior to me,” she said. 

Dageago believes that women in Nauru are on the rise, and that through seeing women like her in the house, others may be inspired to do the same come the next election.

“By being in the house we potentially act as a form of inspiration for other women across Nauru. It isn’t an easy environment to work in, but we are proud to be a part of it – and we hope that come the next election the house will be filled with more women,” she said. 

Three members of Nauru's Parliament.

Isabella Dageago (left), with fellow MPs parliamentary Speaker, Marcus Stephen (centre) and Asterio Appi.

Photo: UNDP

One aspect of the Nauru political spectrum that is thriving with women in leadership is the country’s Electoral Commission. While Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) have a mandate to advance gender parity when it comes to women's representation during the electoral process, their own workforce in many countries is not reflective of this objective. 

A disconnect between their mandate and their actions, unfortunately, currently exists. 

In Nauru all three Commissioners of the country’s EMB are women, a feat not replicated anywhere else in the world. Commissioner Sylvanna Deireregea said that other electoral bodies in the region are taking inspiration from the example they are setting when it comes to the make-up of their own bodies.

“With our all-women leadership at the NEC, other EMBs across the Pacific are now looking to Nauru for support and advice on how they can do the same.

“Not only is our leadership currently comprised of three women, around 80 percent of the electoral officials who work for the NEC are women as well. It’s nice to know that we are leading the way in championing women in leadership,” she said. 

Former Commissioner Corinne Joram, who worked in the education sector for over 15 years before joining the NEC, asserted that women in leadership positions in Nauru have rightfully earned their positions, and their presence is not simply tokenistic. 

“It’s not simply chance or luck that we find ourselves in these positions, it has come from hard work and dedication,” Joram said. 

The second bright spot for women in Nauru has been the establishment of the Women’s Empowerment Nauru Association (WENA). Comprising of Gabrissa Hartam, Formosa Scotty, Jennifer Harris, Greta Harris, Simina Capelle and Cronisa Baguga the group is dedicated to promoting women's empowerment and advocating for gender equality, recognising the important role it can play in getting more Nauruan women a seat at the decision-making table. 

Baguga wears dual hats as a WENA Board Member and a Commissioner with the NEC and stressed that having more women in the house is essential to ensure that members of parliament best represent the constituents they serve.

“That’s the next step for us as women in Nauru, to see more women in the house. Seeing the two women elected has empowered women here to think that they too belong in the house. 

“I feel proud of what we are doing here as women, and the country should be incredibly delighted by the fact that we have an EMB that is 100 percent women led,” she said. 

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific Office in Fiji collaborates with the NEC and WENA through the Nauru Accountable and Inclusive Governance (NAIG) Project. The project is anchored around capacity building, strengthening Nauru’s electoral and parliamentary institutions, voter education, strengthening the rule of law and access to justice, and addressing challenges such as increasing women’s participation in the parliamentary space. 

The project seeks to improve the functioning of Nauru’s legislative branch, not just through direct capacity building, but by working with the NEC as the body responsible for ensuring the credible and transparent election of members to parliament.

Deputy Resident Representative for the North Pacific, Kevin Petrini, said that UNDP had a particular focus on implementing targeted work to ensure that women and girls are engaged in politics and public life.

“A truly democratic society should reflect the diversity of its population. When women have equal opportunities to participate in politics it enhances the legitimacy and effectiveness of democratic institutions. Equal representation fosters trust in the political system and ensures that policies and laws reflect the needs and aspirations of all citizens, this being the very ethos of what the NAIG project is about,” he said. 

Amplifying women's voices in the political sphere is an ongoing story, where the courage of a few is inspiring the many. With women like Isabella Dageago and the all-women leadership of the Electoral Commission leading the charge, the tide is shifting. 

As the Pacific strives to bridge the gender gap in its political landscape, Nauru's story stands as a reminder that progress is a collective endeavour—one that reshapes the future for generations to come.

The NAIG project runs through 2025 and is supported by the Governments of New Zealand and Australia.