Leadership and Decision Making

‘I speak to you today as the first woman leader of an independent Pacific small island nation. […] And it may be that the Pacific and the world must adjust to a new era, where the voice of women and girls gains its rightful place in community, home, and all levels of politics from the local to the UN.’
Her Excellency Dr Hilda Heine, President, Republic of Marshall Islands (General Assembly of the United Nations, 2016).iv

‘We have fostered the ideals of inclusive governments and human rights yet we shy away from ensuring that women are better represented in the highest decision making body in Parliament. The representation of women in Parliament is not a gender issue but a social justice issue; ensuring that all members of society are fairly represented to make decisions about the social and economic wellbeing of everyone.’
Dr Transform Aqorau, Technical and Legal Support, Adjunct Visiting Fellow, School of Government, Development and International Affairs, University of the South Pacific, Fiji (Australian National University Pacific Update Conference, 2016, Canberra).


Women’s absence from many decision making forums in the Pacific inhibits countries from reaching their development goals. From family and clan groups that make decisions about land and marine resources, to senior posts in the public service, and in formal political bodies, women make up only a small percentage of those engaged in leadership. However, there are signs of progress across many sectors.

A number of Pacific governments have introduced temporary special measures legislation to support women’s engagement in politics. In addition, progressive coalitions of civil society and faith-based organisations are working to raise awareness and transform attitudes about women as equal partners in decision making. Policies and new legislation in the region make women’s rights to participate in public life explicit, and programs are being designed to monitor and evaluate the ways in which women’s engagement in decision making can positively influence development interventions.

Pacific Women’s support of coalitions promoting gender equality is critical to advancing women’s leadership. Coalitions are made up of Pacific people who contribute to changing social norms about gender roles and encourage women to make their own decisions and advance their own views. Regional and national coalitions advocate for women’s rights, including to live full and productive lives, participating as equal citizens in their respective countries.

During this reporting period, Pacific Women funded nine activities focused primarily on women’s leadership. Of these activities, five focus on community-level leadership; one on local-level leadership; and three on national-level leadership.

Pacific Women is also funding three activities that have a secondary focus on promoting the participation and leadership of women on boards and associations.

Pacific Women supports strategic leadership interventions with young women, building their capacity and mentoring them as they engage in public life and decision making. Activities such as the Young Women in Leadership program in Bougainville and the Fiji Young Women’s Forum are showing that these interventions can generate ripples of influence in families, peer groups and the wider public and reinforces the likelihood of generational change. The result is enhancement of young women’s opportunities to find employment, be role models in their families and communities, and defend their own choices and rights.

Pacific Women is also working to increase the number of women parliamentarians in the Pacific above its current level of 6.7 percent.7 Partners are striving to reduce systemic constraints, and change perceptions about women as leaders. Interventions such as the regional Pacific Women’s Parliamentary Partnerships project and work by United Nations Development Programme to increase political participation of women in Samoa, facilitate networking on gender equality in political arenas. Activities identify and address barriers that hold women back from political leadership and build capacity for more gender equitable political decision making. PWPP also works with parliamentary officials, supporting them to integrate gender issues into their work.

The following case studies highlight these and other initiatives supported by Pacific Women.

7This figure is inclusive of nonelected speakers of the House.


Project name: Pacific Women’s Parliamentary Partnerships (PWPP) project
Project partner: International and Community Relations Office, Australian Department of the House of Representatives
Total funding: $2,850,037
Funding timeframe: 2013–2018

Only 6.7 percent of parliamentarians across the Pacific (excluding Australia and New Zealand) are women. The PWPP project is working with Pacific Island women and men to change this. It aims to improve understanding of the factors that constrain women’s political participation, and to build the capacity of women parliamentarians in the Pacific, the institutions in which they work and the staff who support them. Annual forums to bring together parliamentarians from across the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand are an important element of the program.

Hon Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources and Environment (Samoa) addresses fellow Members of Pacific Parliaments at the PWPP Forum in Samoa Photo: Shazia Usman/Pacific Women Support Unit.

In April 2016, the fourth PWPP annual forum was held in Samoa with the theme of exploring women’s economic empowerment in the Pacific. Sixty parliamentarians from 21 parliaments in the region participated in the forum, including eight male parliamentarians.

As women’s incomes rise they spend proportionately more on their children’s education, nutrition and housing. Recognising that this contributes to economic development and prosperity on a national level, the delegates developed six priority actions for Pacific parliaments to promote women’s economic development: legislative protection for women in business; access to finance; skills training; attitudinal change; partnerships and cooperation; and government and political leadership.

Parliamentarians at the forum committed to taking back lessons to their own countries. The Hon Francesca Semoso will take the shared lessons from the forum home to the parliament of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville where she is the Deputy Speaker.

‘We, collectively as governments, as women parliamentarians with women’s organisations can make this happen,’ she said. ‘I hope to go back from the Forum and work with my colleagues in seeing how we can make policies that will make informal and formal markets more accessible to women.’

Ms Natasha Stott Despoja, Australia’s Global Ambassador for Women and Girls, spoke on the positive contribution the PWPP annual forums are making to ensure Pacific women’s equal involvement in public life. She noted how vital it is that MPs use their voices to support other Pacific women and men who are advocating for gender equality and transformation at local, national and regional levels.

In addition to the annual forums, the PWPP project has supported a number of exchanges between MPs from Australia and the Pacific.

Project name: Improving women’s leadership, political participation and decision making in the Pacific
Project partner: State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) program, Australian National University
Total funding: $313,000
Funding timeframe: 2014-2017

Pacific Women aims to better understand and improve women’s leadership and decision making in the region. Researchers from the SSGM program at Australian National University have produced an overview of the existing research and analytical work on women in political and administrative leadership in the Pacific. This research8 will be used to inform future Pacific Women programming on this topic.

Over the years, efforts around women’s leadership in the Pacific have not resulted in the gains expected or desired. For example, women’s representation in parliament for the region remains the lowest in the world. Understanding what has enabled women to be elected successfully to parliament can lead to new ways of engaging and new modalities for support, so that future efforts do result in change.

L-R: Senators Jerrlyn Uduch Sengebau Senior (Palau) and Daisy Alik-Momotaro (Republic of the Marshall Islands) joined fellow Pacific women parliamentarians in Samoa to discuss women’s access to formal and informal economies. Photo: Shazia Usman/Pacific Women Support Unit.

SSGM’s report ‘Women’s political and administrative leadership in the Pacific’ found that, across the region, women candidates who poll well are typically community-based, have deep connections to their electorates, are well educated, have strong male backers, are from high- profile families, have often built good reputations as a local representative, have a strong constituency support base, have significant involvement in the church, and are recognised as serving the community or delivering benefits locally.

The report cautioned that focusing on political representation at the national level is not sufficient; support to women in local leadership positions is required or there will not be a critical mass of women in leadership positions across all levels of decision making. Researchers, Dr Nicole Haley and Dr Kerry Zubrinich, note: ‘The success or otherwise of initiatives aimed at improving women’s political participation and political representation need therefore to be assessed in broader terms not just in terms of the number of women elected to parliament. Because even when women’s formal participation is secured (i.e. through special measures) their access to informal political spaces may remain constrained.’

The report also recognised that public administration offers an important opportunity for women’s leadership, particularly as the public sector is the largest single employer of women across the region. Positive factors for women in administrative leadership positions were found to be access to scholarships and professional mentoring. However, research shows that gender inequalities make it difficult for women to reach positions of leadership in the public service. Women are more likely to be found in professional services roles such as teaching or health work, than in decision making positions. Using statistics from Papua New Guinea in 2014 as an example, 38 percent of all public servants were women, but only 18 percent of senior management positions and seven percent of executive appointments were held by women.

The reports’ findings, drawn from the pool of existing evidence, will help shape future Pacific Women initiatives.

8Research available on Pacific Women’s website under the Resources section.

Project name: Young Women in Leadership Project
Project partner: Bougainville Women’s Federation and International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA)
Total Funding: $1,402,906
Funding Timeframe: 2016-2018

Recognising the need for more skilful and confident leaders in Bougainville, the Young Women in Leadership Project is training and supporting 120 young women to develop their leadership skills. A key component of the project is to strengthen the younger women’s relationships with mature women leaders, creating opportunities for mentoring and skill sharing. Young women who participated in the pilot program in 2015 are now trainers and are imparting their knowledge to a new cohort of young women leaders.

Ms Irene Subalik facilitating a leadership training at the Goro Village in Arawa, Autonomous Region of Bougainville. Photo: Judith Oliver.

In May 2016, the Bougainville Women’s Federation chose nine young women from the 29 who participated in the 2015 pilot phase project to trial its leadership manual in workshops. Through assessments of their performance, five of these young women were selected as trainers. Pacific Women is supporting these women to roll out the Young Women in Leadership Project to a new group of young women leaders.

Ms Irene Subalik is one of the newly chosen trainers. Ms Irene Subalik comes from Nissan Island and her childhood dream was to become a teacher. However, unable to attend teacher’s college after completing Grade 12, she instead focussed her attention on community work. She joined her church youth group and became an active member of the Nissan District Women’s Federation.

Now, through her involvement with the Young Women in Leadership Project (YWLP), Ms Subalik has been employed as a short term researcher and trainer, conducting leadership trainings for Caritas Australia’s Catholic Youth Leadership Program.

Reflecting on her experience with the project, Ms Subalik said: ‘After attending the ToT (Training of Trainers), coupled with mentoring from Bougainville Women’s Federation staff and the experience from running two leadership trainings for Caritas young women program, I feel I’m very capable of running other trainings that I have already attended and importantly knowing the context of the target communities or groups. To me it’s not just about being a trainer that matters but also being an advocator on issues that are affecting young women and encouraging them on making informed choices in their lives. My involvement with the YWLP has brought me this far because of my commitment to learn and build my capacity to help young women and people in my community.’

Project name: Increasing Political Participation of Women in Samoa (IPPWS)
Project partner: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Total funding: $500,000
Funding timeframe: 2015–2016

A reserved seats quota for women was used for the first time in Samoa in the March 2016 elections. In the lead up to the election, the IPPWS program worked to build the capacity of women candidates and to educate voters about the introduction of reserved seats. Following the election, the program turned its attention to post election mentoring support.

Ms Faimalotoa Kika Stowers (in blue), one of three women MPs in Samoa, at an election information session in Samoa. The session focused on the impact of the Constitutional Amendment Act of 2013 that guaranteed 10 percent of seats in Samoa’s Legislative Assembly for women. Photo: Ellie van Baaren/UN Women.

Pacific Women supports IPPWS’ work on awareness raising, education and capacity building for women participating in the electoral process, and training for political parties.

In the past year, activities focused on the national elections, with strong use of social media and multimedia communications.

IPPWS’ initiatives included the first ever weekly talk back show on Samoan radio dedicated to women in politics Fa’asoa I Le Palota (Elections Talk) and a radio drama following the story of a woman running for office Fa’atino Lou Vala’auina (Follow Your Calling). IPPWS’ radio and TV productions were received by over 80,000 people.

National University of Samoa journalism students taking part in the IPPWS program training on gender sensitive election coverage. Photo: Ellie van Baaren/UN Women.

Journalism students at the National University of Samoa participated in a workshop on gender sensitive election reporting. Attitudes shifted significantly as a result of the IPPWS training. Before, 68 percent of students agreed that men were naturally better leaders than women; after, this dropped to 23 percent. Before the training, 68 percent of the students believed there was no such thing as sexist language; this fell to 40 percent afterwards.

Following the elections, the new women parliamentarians had the opportunity to attend a mentoring retreat with women parliamentarians from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa. These discussions were held in a safe environment which facilitated knowledge sharing and lessons learned. The group tackled issues such as how women parliamentarians can be most effective in the parliament chamber and understanding how political and cultural hierarchies affect the work of MPs on a day-to-day basis.

Of the 164 candidates who stood for election, 24 were women. Four women candidates were elected outright, with a fifth being appointed to reach the 10 percent quota of women parliamentarians required by the reserved seats measure. This raises women’s political representation in Samoa above the regional Pacific average of 6.7 percent (excluding Australia and New Zealand).