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Lisa Williams: Cook Islands ignores push for equality

Monday March 09, 2020 Written by Published in Editorials

OPINION: From Beijing to Avarua, Lisa Williams reports from New York on how a global promise for gender action made 25 years ago has come full circle.

The days before March 8 in New York City show off the global face of gender activism, and our Pacific vibe within it.

The Cook Islands ‘ei katu, the Pacific prints and flowers, the articulate activism and powerful Pacific stories, sometimes told by Pacific leaders, most often by everyday women and youth, have been a hallmark of the annual Commission on the Status of Women. 

But in 2020, as the world celebrates 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action towards equality, the sense of deflation is real, but the work continues.

I landed in New York City yesterday afternoon. I was on a plane almost empty where it would usually be packed, one of the casualties of Covid-19.

Many Pacific governments were told that only those with New York missions would be represented; the two-week international meeting has been slashed to a few hours because of the virus.

But the impact of Covid-19 opens up opportunities for Pacific activists who already work smart online. They’re predicting more local events with less fuss and expense – and Cook Islands may benefit.

For Cook Islands gender activism, the key challenges and opportunities remain much the same as in 1995. 

Issues around women in decision-making, stopping violence against women, and lack of resourcing for putting nice words into meaningful action remain constant, say our women.

In October 1995, Gertrude Mongella closed the meeting, and it was easy to see the elation in this honeymoon moment for the United Nations. "Not only must women become free and equal to make choices about their own lives, not only must women have the right, the formal and protected right, to take part in shaping society, but far more, women must make use of that right,” she said.

“Women power is a formidable force. Women’s values have a lot to give … We need women at all levels of management and government – local as well as national government.”

Fast forward to Cook Islands in 2020, and the leadership of women in our public sector as well as the guiding presence of a women speaker, a woman opposition leader, and a mother-daughter combo in the Parliament shows progress.

We have training and public awareness, youth and women’s parliaments, and rising numbers of women putting their hands up for election.

But have these changes happened because of the state-led push for gender equality – or in spite of it? 

Education and public awareness on temporary special measures are discredited as a foreign flower, or more attempts to foist change on the bastions of democracy which are under threat from “imported” ideas...as if democracy itself didn't come through the same door.

In 2018, the Cook Islands National Council of Women submitted a shadow report to the United Nations, countering the official version of the state of Cook Islands women.

At that time, they voiced concerns over the downgrading of the gender office in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, merging it into social services. As well, they were worried over the ongoing reliance of donor and project funding to carry out the priorities of working for the vulnerable: women, the elderly, the very young.

They recommended mainstreaming gender in the pa enua, introducing a Ministry for Women, acting on temporary special measures – but for many reasons, all of them likely to be acceptable and common to other countries in the Pacific, they remain recommendations.

Cook Islands will spark some timely conversations around where those recommendations are, given the age of the internet and its impact on information, as well as renewed global interest in a controversial select committee and its shuffle towards resolution of some discriminatory clauses in a revamped Crimes Bill.

The tensions unleashed by that bill go beyond human rights and gender reform, to the heart of national identity and the pressure on the state to do what’s popular versus doing what is right. It’s a watershed moment.

It’s a reminder that the politics of a nation become so much clearer when they are personal. Being a woman working in media, much of that in an island community where the roles of women and girls are very unwritten and very clear, the personal is the political.

I asked a fellow professional, who like me, stepped away and onto a plane to serve our people from global spaces.

Her view? That the current situation – especially around the rising numbers of leaders at head of ministry level – is fantastic and must continue.

But there is a deja vu sameness to the trends around gender violence, women in politics, access to justice for abuse and sex crime survivors in our courts. It's as if the sense of momentum is not forward but that of swirling, a tamure motion in a time warp.

“Mindsets must change so that women are treated and viewed as equal to men in all areas,” says my colleague. “If there is rape, we must not question why the woman put herself in that position or what she was wearing – we must naturally place the pressure of explaining the crime upon the person charged with committing it.

“And there must be equal pay and equality at work. In meetings women must be given equal respect as men at the table – we must not automatically turn to the woman at the table to pour the water

“In short, sure, a lot has been achieved but more must be done.”

> Lisa Williams

in New York

1 comment

  • Comment Link Anoush Ter Taulian Thursday, 14 May 2020 22:19 posted by Anoush Ter Taulian

    Hi Lisa, How are you? I met you at the 7gen event in NY in March You said you were going to Fiji. I want to email you but Zi couldn’t read your handwriting. What is your email? Thanks Anoush