Family, Community, Country: Reflecting on the Unique Journey of Pacific Women Leaders

June 27, 2024

Women leaders from the North Pacific.

Photo: UNDP

Women in leadership positions each have their own story of struggle and triumph. While their journeys are unique, they share a common thread: nothing was handed to them; their wins have all been hard fought.  

Be it a 60-year-old woman fighting for a senate seat in Kiribati, or a young climate campaigner angling for her voice to be heard in Nauru, gaining a seat at the table has often, and remains, a relentless task.  

The fight for equality in positions of leadership is women wanting an equal share, the chance to join hands with humanity to ensure that all voices are heard.  

Despite tangible efforts across the Pacific to bring about change for women and girls in leadership, we find ourselves at a standstill. In fact, if anything, the numbers show that gender equality in the region’s political space is in decline. At present, fewer than seven percent of Pacific politicians are women, compared to 27 percent globally.  

There are tangible differences between the three sub-regions of the Pacific: Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. The status of women in ‘traditional’ contexts has a direct correlation with the status of women in institutionalized leadership roles. In Fiji, by way of example, women can hold chiefly title, resulting in women’s participation in both politics and government outweighing that of women in Melanesia and Micronesia. In Micronesia, the participation of women in positions of leadership is primarily achieved through access to and the subsequent distribution of assets; of which women unfortunately remain without access to.  

The UNDP Pacific Office has travelled across the length and breadth of Micronesia, with the North Pacific seeing a plethora of women pushing to be agents of change within all spheres and spaces – at national, sub-national and community levels.  

Pockets of change, stories of hope, and a steadfast ambition to defy the odds abound, and while there is diversity in the challenges our women face, there is unity through the pillars of family, community, and a love of country.  

These are a selection of their stories…

Jane Chigiyal in her role as Ambassador of Micronesia to the UN.

Photo: Supplied

The Importance of Family in the Federated States of Micronesia 

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) are made up of four states comprising around 607 islands; a lagoon of islands where matrilineal clans weave webs of connections.  

For Presidential Chief of Staff Jane Chigiyal, her appointment as the first female Ambassador from the Federated States of Micronesia, and Permanent Representative to the United Nations for over a decade demanded sacrifices.  

Chigiyal believes that family is a very important aspect in one’s career, and the driving force to do our best.  

During her posting, she endured separation from her family while stationed in the United States. However, she transformed this struggle into power with her family and her country as the source of motivation, propelling her towards excellence.  

“Knowing the purpose behind your actions enables effective representation of your country,” she said.  

UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji Resident Representative, Munkhtuya Altangerel (left), with Tangariki Reete.

Photo: UNDP

The Role of Community in Kiribati 

Tangariki Reete’s story is one of persistence and patience; a story that embodies the notion of ‘taking a village’ for one to achieve their lofty goals.  

After tertiary studies she commenced work with the Ministry of Labour Employment and Cooperatives, before taking senior positions within the Kiribati Credit Union and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning.

At the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, she found her voice and a desire to do more for the people in her constituency of Betio.  

She was first elected to represent the constituency previously held by her late father in 2008, followed by re-election in 2012 and appointment as the Minister of Women, Youth and Social Affairs.

Reete was elected Speaker of 12th Kiribati Parliament – or Maneaba ni Maungatabu. Reflecting on her four-year tenure as Speaker (Reete has since stood down to stand as a candidate in the upcoming General Election), she underscored the importance of peer-to-peer support, particularly in nurturing a culture of women supporting women in leadership roles. She also emphasized the crucial role of offering mentorship and training to young women entering the political sphere, guiding them through the intricacies of this career path.

“We need to be able to reach out to a ‘women army’ to sustain women's presence in leadership positions and amplify their voices in decision-making processes,” she said.  

Vronisa Baguga (left) in her capacity as Nauru Electoral Commissioner.

Photo: UNDP

A Love of Country

Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) are mandated to advance gender parity in women's representation during the electoral process. Consequently, many EMBs are actively working to better reflect this objective within their own workforce.

The Pacific Island nation of Nauru, with an area of just 21 square kilometers, exemplifies world-leading progress in this area. The Nauru Electoral Commission (NEC) is leading by example, with all three leadership positions currently held by women, one of these being Commissioner Cronisa Baguga.

In 2022's Nauru General Election, Yaren constituency elected the only two women members of parliament. Ms. Baguga resides in this constituency 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 proud of the fact that we have an EMB that is 100 percent women led,” she said.  

In a world where women are underrepresented in leadership positions, the NEC's success story is a beacon of hope for other electoral bodies across the Pacific, and beyond.  

This momentum propels us towards a future where women's voices are not just heard but amplified.

Empowering Change: A Call to Action

The stories of these remarkable women underscore the vital role of resilience, mentorship, and community support in achieving a hard-fought seat at the decision-making table. These women pave the way for future generations of women to unlock their full potential; to take the reins to realize their dreams.

We must create dedicated fora and spaces that allow for supporting – and sustaining – such efforts. The Pacific’s regional bodies and development partners must provide the adequate resources to ensure that women can connect and collaborate, and that our efforts to realize the global sustainable development agenda are no longer pushed off track.  

For our Pacific women, the future is not a mere whisper, but a rhapsody rising. A symphony of voices, each a wave cresting, a crescendo of change calling for a brighter future for all.