Hope for the gender agenda

Ruth Ramoifuila

Solomon Islands women are disadvantaged by their lack of access to education and status in society and by deep-rooted traditions of male dominance, but the process of globalisation holds out the promise for change in the future. 

Slowly but surely. These three words could effectively sum up progress made towards achieving gender equality and improved lives for Solomon Islands women and girls during the three decades since independence in 1978. While in some areas a little less slow and in others a little less sure, the road from a promise of equality has certainly not always been smooth. Traditional systems of kastom (custom) and culture that place women as subordinate to men continue to have deep implications. 

In 2010, the official Millennium Development Goal (MDG) report said that while more Solomon Islands girls were attending primary schools, the numbers in secondary education were “less impressive”. It further highlighted the absence of female politicians and cabinet ministers, and noted that female employment in the informal sector was much lower than males. The WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, Dr Shin Young-Shoo, has also said that the country is not moving quickly enough to meet the MDG targets to reduce child and maternal mortality rates. 

Traditional systems have tended to perpetuate women’s gendered roles as caregivers, mothers and dependents. This has had both direct and indirect consequences for the women themselves and for their level of advancement in modern Solomon Islands.

A recent study on education and literacy in rural communities of two matrilineal provinces, Isabel and Rennell-Bellona, found that women view literacy skills as less important than acquiring skills in the traditional gendered roles. It observed that in these two provinces “women take on domestic, household and childcare roles while men spend more time outside of the home and are more likely to engage in literacy demanding tasks of leadership roles and paid jobs”. 

Graver cultural implications surfaced in a 2009 report that revealed shocking statistics of violence against women and sexual abuse against children. Tagged the Family Health and Safety Survey – to soften its confrontational face as research into incidences of domestic and gender-based violence in the country – it revealed that 64 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 experienced physical and sexual abuse from spouses or intimate partners; and 37 percent admitted to having been physically and sexually abused even before turning 15. 

Solomon Islands men seem to have little difficulty justifying the routine abuse of women. A reason for violence given by one male respondent was discipline. “When she tells me to do things when I am tired, I usually beat her up… I want her to obey me,” he said. Bride price was cited by another male respondent, who stated, “When you buy a woman, we think that she is our property, and even though she is beaten by her partner, it is okay because she is already bought.” 

The Permanent Secretary for Women, Youth, Children and Family Affairs, Ethel Sigimanu, who is one of only three women currently holding an executive government post in the Solomon Islands, says the ministry does not expect the road to ending violence against women to be easy. “It’s still a sensitive subject. It’s a subject where you cannot divorce the power relations between man and woman – you know authority or whoever is in power speaks louder,” she says. “But we’re not saying, let’s do away with the culture. We recognise that culture is important for guidance.” 

In the 33 years since the country achieved its independence, the Solomon Islands has had only one woman parliamentarian, and although there are no legal or constitutional barriers preventing women from entering the political arena, a general belief in bigman leadership by the majority of voters still posed an insuperable hurdle for the 40 plus women who contested the 2006 and 2010 elections. 

But there is hope still and there has been progress. Sigimanu believes strongly that globalisation will bring immense changes for Solomon Islands women. “I think women are at a crossroads, trying to figure out how to adjust to the many changes, but also limited by their lack of access to opportunities and the fact that they are not in full control of their own lives,” she says. “We’re increasing the awareness, the advocacy, so a lot more women in the country are a bit more aware of their rights, but they are also limited by the challenges… We need to provide women [with] an enabling environment to come out to be heard and to work alongside our men in all areas of development, so there’s hope that we can improve.” 

About the author:

Ruth Ramoifuila is a radio reporter and current affairs producer for the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation


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