Women leading and influencing



Pacific politics and leadership reflections – Atenasi Ata

Thursday, 19 April 2018

I was curious about this new initiative that specifically targeted Pacific women currently studying in Australia, and wanted to explore how taking part in it would fit into my future plans in applying lessons from subjects taken to date.

What I discovered

I hadn't realised that the initiative was structured in three components with events such as this forming a 'Tier 1', followed by staged support to meet identified leadership-development needs. The upcoming call for applications from women awardees for leadership training and mentor-mentee relationships comprise Tier 2, and Tier 3, and involve further screening for placements with Australian organisations and institutions.

This was a great discovery. Upon returning home, while settling back into routine and the seemingly-endless demands of work and family-life, the valuable, directly applicable lessons from studies can often take a back seat to everything else. The determination to effect changes crystallised while studying can gradually fade until the sum of two or three years studying at a world's best institution is condensed into muttered responses of 'yeah it was a great learning experience' or 'yeah I saw kangaroos'.

Event highlights

Highlights of the forum included a panel discussing different challenges in leadership in Pacific politics. I do not know if the electoral system of 'first past the post' is the best for Solomon Islands with its strong culture of influencing voter behaviour, consistently delivering winners with generally low shares of total votes cast. What I do know is that at the moment women are still largely regarded as second class citizens who belong in the kitchen, and therefore face repercussions (mostly in forms of violence) when not fitting into that stereotype. Vanuatu MP Ralph Regenvanu suggested that one way of overcoming the structural disadvantage such patriarchy poses would be to use temporary special measures such as what Vanuatu is doing in three of its municipalities.

It was encouraging to hear differences in advice for women aspiring towards political leadership. The Honourable Alofa spoke of the length of time it took to establish herself as an authority in Samoa, firstly in her village as a matai (a requisite for contesting the national elections) and then as an MP. For her, it was important to regard political leadership as a long-term project, establishing oneself in the constituency over time. She advised being strategic in effecting change such as capitalising on unplanned interactions with constituents to explain the responsibilities of an MP. She also advised really finessing that one key strength or value you would bring to the table (or the House).

Australia's former Ambassador for Women and Girls, Dr Sharman Stone, described being left to fend for herself in an 'unwinnable seat', which was an interesting contrast to Regenvanu's solution of addressing the weak party politics that typify Vanuatu politics. She cautioned that 'legislating for political parties to field women candidates does not necessarily translate to genuine adoption'. And she offered a gem of practical advice: 'wear bright colours to stand out and draw attention'.

The panel was nicely rounded by Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre CEO, Robyn Forester, who encouraged playing the (leadership) game by changing the language: 'consider using the word "I” more often. Don't hide behind the ”we''.'She also highlighted the value of clarity in drawing on support networks - knowing your leadership goal or target: 'are you aspiring to be a community leader or a local government leader or a national politician?'

How this relates to my studies and future work

In my studies so far I have realised that for the Solomon Islands to be successful in developing itself, delivering essential services with its limited resource envelope, women need to be involved in the directing.

That there is this policy directive and funding to support Pacific islanders, especially Pacific islands women, in implementing their greatest visions for change, is encouraging, as it offers much-needed positive role modelling for young girls. It also allows institutions to realise their own human resource development plans, and the country is better-off for it gaining not only skilled professional women but most importantly, women who sponsor solutions to challenges that are context-driven with an increased likelihood of owning and sustaining impacts.

Whether I work as an officer for government or for a non-governmental organisation, I would be supporting women similarly - steering human resource development-investments to meet the needs of the country. I would also start wearing less black outfits.