Advancing gender equality in the Pacific: a win-win for women and the economy

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Kerrie Gene sits at her desk preparing her class plan for her Class 4 students at Gihamu Primary School, Western Highlands Province. Since Kerrie participated in the READ PNG quality booster training for teachers teaching reading to student Kerrie Gene sits at her desk preparing her class plan for her Class 4 students at Gihamu Primary School, Western Highlands Province. Since Kerrie participated in the READ PNG quality booster training for teachers teaching reading to student

For many people, International Women’s Day is about celebrating the efforts of women across the world in shaping a more equitable future. And each year, our team shares the stories of remarkable women in the Pacific and Papua New Guinea (PNG) who are breaking barriers too: entering professions in male-dominated sectors, ensuring half of the country’s population has a voice in decision-making bodies, or advocating for social justice.  

Their stories are inspiring and thought-provoking. They remind us we have many reasons to celebrate in the Pacific on this day. The maternal mortality rate across the Pacific islands has almost halved since 2000. Educational attainment has improved; with girls now even outperforming boys, just to name a few. 

The progress made is encouraging, however the Pacific needs bigger and faster strides to close remaining gender gaps. Across the Pacific, too many women are still unable to participate fully in economic, social, and political life. Even successful business leaders like PNG’s Beatrice Mahuru talk about the long road ahead: “I'm not satisfied with what we currently have. Our generation needs to create an environment where women’s voices aren’t an exception but the norm.” 

Advancing women’s economic empowerment in the Pacific stands not just to benefit women and girls, but their entire country and society. A new World Bank working paper finds that on average for the Pacific Islands, long run GDP per capita would be around 22 percent higher if gender employment gaps were to close; that is, if employment rates for women were to match men’s.   

The stats tell startling stories about scale of the challenge. In Fiji, women’s labor force participation is about half that of men. In PNG, women are half as likely to hold paid jobs in the formal sector. COVID-19 has further exacerbated gender gaps in employment. Gender inequalities in decision-making and the plague of gender-based violence (GBV) are an unparalleled challenge for the Pacific.  Representation of women in national parliaments between 2016 and 2021 increased only from 5.7 to 6 percent on average in nine Pacific countries1, while globally women represent 26 percent of members of legislatures. When I joined the World Bank’s Pacific team last year, learning that in Kiribati, Fiji, PNG and Solomon Islands one in two women have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner – twice the global average – was a clear call for action for me that we all can do more, and must. 

Efforts by women’s groups and NGOs advocating for gender equality across the Pacific have been immense. Development partners including the World Bank Group have been actively supporting Pacific countries on gender equality. With concerted effort, I have no doubt that we can make an equal world for men and women.    

I am very proud of the work our team has supported in this space. The value of our Pacific projects that specifically invest in gender equality is US$1.7 billion; out of a total US$2 billion portfolio. In the last six months alone, the World Bank has supported several policy reforms addressing GBV: establishing a workplace sexual harassment policy in Tonga through the Public Service Sexual Harassment Bill, reducing risks of online harassment in Marshall Islands through the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, and supporting the Inclusive Education Policy in Tuvalu with a focus of addressing violence against children.  

We are also investing in projects that provide more opportunities for women to work, including in male-dominated sectors. We’re supporting more women to get employed in Vanuatu's infrastructure sector, helping women get access to skills in digital entrepreneurship in Marshall Islands, and in Solomon Islands, supported employment training and paid work for more than 1,700 women through the Community Access and Urban Services Enhancement (CAUSE) Project

There are countless extraordinary stories of positive change across the Pacific, thanks to the strong commitments made by Pacific leaders and people. I’m committed that our team will help add to those stories; by lifting up women who, in turn, will lift up others. Or as Beatrice Mahuru has said: “I want women to be able to reach the stars. And once they reach the stars, reach back and take another queen up with them.” 


Stephen Ndegwa

Country Director for Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands

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