Gender in the Pacific: Can a report help improve equality?

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ImageAs a junior member of the team who produced the forthcoming East Asia and Pacific companion to the World Development Report 2012 “Toward Gender Equality in East Asia and the Pacific”, I was excited to present its findings in the Pacific. After spending months reading, writing, reviewing and revising our findings and content, I had a plethora of questions waiting to be answered about the impact of our work:  How would our audience receive it? Will our findings, based on painstakingly collected data and research, be adapted to the reality of gender and development in their country?  Will they be able to use these reports to continue working toward gender equality in all aspects of life? Will our reports help people, namely women, lead more productive and fulfilling lives?

Last month I went to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Fiji with the rest of the team to share and discuss our findings with members of government, the media, civil society, students and our donor partners.

I really wanted the reports to be received positively because of the current challenges to gender equality in the Pacific. As discussed in both reports, gender equality worldwide has improved in health and education, yet continues to lag behind men in several areas including economic opportunity, and voice and influence in society. Women in the Pacific face particular challenges with respect to having voice and influence.

As of December 31, 2011, four of the six countries in the world with zero women in parliament are Pacific Islands (the other two being Saudi Arabia and Qatar).  Nationally representative data suggests that between 60-70 percent of women aged 15-49 who have been in a relationship in Kiribati, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have experienced sexual and/or physical violence from their partner. A similar study is currently being conducted in Fiji, and we were told that members of the Fijian team who surveyed rural areas had to receive mental counseling upon returning to the city due to the horrific stories they were told.

Simply reading such statistics or hearing such stories would give most people a doom and gloom perspective of the Pacific Islands with regard to promoting gender equality. However, in my visit to these countries I generated a more nuanced opinion.

While we conducted similar presentations in each place, the audiences’ reactions to our seminars were vastly different. In Papua New Guinea, the donor and civil society communities stressed the need to move beyond discussing gender equality by taking action on implementing policies and projects. In the Solomon Islands, women discussed the struggle between religion and gender equality, personalizing the debate with individual stories.

A favorite response of mine was when a member of parliament— who spoke passionately about gender equality— stated, “I am a woman in a man’s body.” In addition to giving me a laugh, this was one of several indications that males are also championing this issue.

In Fiji, the audience took the discussion a step further to discuss the specific obstacles faced by minority groups, including women with disabilities and the transgender community, and how to better include these groups in data collection and policy targeting.  These responses confirmed that the report and its surrounding discussions were adaptable, and people could identify with different findings based on their specific country situation.

So, the response was good.  One of the most positive and immediate outcomes was that people said the report was an influential tool to convince people in positions of power of the economic benefits to gender equality. Many were excited because they finally had the quantitative data to show gender inequality and push for change. People also benefitted from hearing about what has worked to reduce gender inequalities in other parts of the world.

So what does this mean? Are the reports a success?

Overall, I say undoubtedly yes, but the implications of our reports are complicated. In a recent World Bank seminar, the historian Simon Szreter offered an analogy of the trajectory of development by describing the course of history as a flowing river and development policy as a stone. While it is impossible to change the whole course of the river, it’s our job in development to strategically place the stone in the river where it will positively affect its course.

I approached the mission using this perspective; while some of my questions remained unanswered, I thought we aligned our stones just right. We offered all that we have learned, and I left feeling hopeful and encouraged by the committed men and women who, independent of the World Bank mission and our presence in that part of the world, continue to work for gender equality.

If you are interested, you can learn more about the World Development Report 2012 and read the East Asia and Pacific Companion main findings here.  And I am interested in your own views and experiences regarding gender equality in the Pacific. Would you want to share them here?

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