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‘A more inclusive, just, and fair world for everyone, everywhere’

Saturday 11 March 2023 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Local, National

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‘A more inclusive, just, and fair world for everyone, everywhere’
Former Chief Nursing Officer of the World Health Organization from January 2018 to January 2023, Elizabeth Iro (middle) with other guests at the International Women’s Day event at Tamarind House on Wednesday. CIBPWA/23031019

Equity for women was on the minds of five speakers at Tamarind House this week.

This year’s International Women’s Day’s theme was “equity for women”.

The word is a tricky one to define, particularly in relation to its partnering word, equality.

But five prominent Cook Islands women gave a decent fist of trying to define it at a special event organised by the Cook Islands Business and Professional Women Association (CIBPWA) at Tamarind House on Wednesday.

The first speaker, Harriet Tuara, a women’s representative with Cook Islands Rugby Union and U18’s Women’s Development team to New Zealand, put it in a sporting context.

“To understand equity, we must first recognise that it’s not the same as equality. In fact, equality and equity are two sides to the coin,” Tuara said.

“Equality is the assumption that everyone benefits from the same support. This is considered to be equal treatment. For example, a sponsor has just donated a brand-new box of mouthguards to our women’s rugby team. We are so grateful for the support and it means every player gets a mouthguard. This is equality - everyone gets a piece of the same pie.”

Tuara said equity on the other hand is ensuring everyone gets the support that they need.

“Cool, we have all these new mouthguards and we didn’t have to pay for them. But there’s just one problem - they are all the same size. Now this works out fine for Jenny, the 16-year-old on the team as it fits her perfectly.

“However, as for Lisa who is knocking on the door of her 30s – it barely fits. What these players actually need are sized-to-fit mouthguards that are comfortable, practical and safe for every one of them. This is equity.”

Tuara said now, more than ever, there was a need for equity in sport.

“In sport, equity is about fairness – equality of access, recognising inequalities and taking steps to address them. It is about changing the culture and structure of sport to ensure it becomes equally accessible to everyone in society,” she said.

“Everyone, regardless of their race/ethnicity, age, disability, socioeconomic status, citizenship status, or religion, deserves equal access to opportunities and services and their safety should have equal access.”

Tuara says Rugby Union has been one code struggling to tear down gender barriers and cultural discrimination for several years.

“I remember an encounter I had at one of our local stores in town. This was when I was still playing rugby, a man who knew I played asked me ‘why do you play rugby. It’s not safe for you girls.’ I can’t remember what I said to him but I do recall feeling offended by the statement he made,” Tuara said.

“For myself personally, 2022 was a breakout year in the rugby space. What merely started out as a hobby and game I enjoyed only playing, grew beyond the field, running the ball and being tackled.

“I saw opportunities in another space of the game and by default landed the head coach position for the first Under 18s Women’s Rugby 15s development team alongside my team manager Peggy Matapo.”

In order to bring equity in women’s rugby, Tuara said there were a number of steps needed to be taken. These include:

• Encourage a girl to play

• Encourage women to take up roles in coaching, refereeing, governance & management

• Change a policy or procedure to remove barriers for girls/women

• Evaluate and adjust the allocation of resources

• Challenge people when they do not fully support women and girls in rugby

“I am passionate about the role that sport plays in creating opportunities for everyone to feel empowered and valued. I believe that Rugby is a natural leader in this area,” she said.

Doctor Evangelene Daniela-Wong was the second speaker for the night.

The clinical psychologist and mental health practitioner at Te Marae Ora, told the audience there needed to be a change in thinking in order for women to thrive.

They had to remove the negative self-talk which exists because of discrimination.

“We call them the ‘if only’ thoughts,” Wong said.

“If only I didn’t have to worry about x, y or z.”

Superwoman is not equity, says Daniela-Wong.

“What if the justice system was focused on restitution and not retribution,” she asked the audience.

“What if it focused on those who had been hurt, not the mostly men who were culpable.”

Daniela-Wong said lifting up women, “lifts us all”.

“We need to value our time, our energy. We need to value ourselves. We need to realise we are enough.

“Cook Islands women are more likely to be in management positions than men, but the pay gap still exists.

“Cook Islands women are also more likely to be the victims of crime.”

Cook Islands Ombudsman Niki Rattle has had a varied career, from serving as secretary general of the Cook Islands Red Cross for 18 years, to being the Cook Islands first-ever female Speaker of Parliament, and now her current role.

She spoke about the need for women to take opportunities.

“I begin with my motto in life – never say no,” Rattle told the audience.

“That has exposed me to jobs, people, places, and experiences that I never would have dreamt possible.”

For some time, Rattle has said she favoured quotas for Parliament as one means to increase women’s participation in politics.

“I believe that political parties are a key driver to increasing women’s political participation,” she said.

“Even in the Pacific, where the number of independent candidates running for office and elected is considered to be high in global terms, the majority of MPs represent political parties. This is also the case in the Cook Islands.”

Rattle says there are a number of ways to increase political participation for women.

“The first steps that can be taken are within the way that the political party itself is organised. There are a number of measures that have been shown that can bring more women into political parties and support them in standing for elections.”

One of these measures, Rattle suggested, could be a mentoring scheme for women who may want to stand for election.

“This is often by more experienced or retired women (and men) MPs providing training, guidance and support to nurture new talent with the political party,” she explained to the audience.

Rattle thought there could also be seats for women on the party’s executive committee.

“Ensuring there are seats for women (e.g. the women’s section representative) on the Executive Committee allows women to be at the very heart of the work of political parties,” Rattle said.

“Political will in reserving seats for women and making sure political parties put forward candidates for those seats, is also a way for ensuring more women in Parliament.

“Women are over half our population and women should be decision makers for our country.”

Newly-appointed Te Ipukarea Society director Alanna Smith is passionate about the environment and passionate about youth issues.

“For me, equity is ensuring equal opportunities are shared to everyone based on their circumstances, so some may need more support than others,” Smith told the audience.

“Self-doubt is a common trait in humans. I’ve had multiple instances feeling this, most recent example my new role as director of Te Ipukarea Society.

“I was content working as a programme manager coordinating projects in the field. Now, this is coming into six years and I was still content remaining in this position.

“But simple free gestures like having the support and belief of my office, my family and wider network knowing very well that I was more then capable of the new director role are qualities that can really boost an individual to greater potential.”

Smith told the audience that in Rarotonga there are various platforms that uplift women or provide services of support. However, she was worried about the lack of similar avenues for women in the Pa Enua.

“I’ve noticed through public consultations TIS has held in the Pa Enua that the men are vocal and speak their views and ask questions, very rarely a woman would speak,” she said.

“But behind the scenes the women are very vocal they have lots of questions and ideas. I know the Pa Enua is very religious and this could be a reason as to why they let the man of the house do the talking publicly. But how does a system like that encourage home grown women from the Pa Enua to get into positions of Parliament?

“Through TIS I’ve been very fortunate to work in the Pa Enua working closely with our communities through educational programmes and getting to know our people on a more personal level by either playing volleyball or after hour drinks.

“To me equity rings out when I think about our Pa Enua communities. How do we get the same level of support out to our women from the Pa Enua so they too can also feel empowered and challenged.”

Elizabeth Iro, the former secretary of health, was the first Chief Nursing Officer of the World Health Organization from January 2018 to January 2023.

She told the audience when she was considering the theme of “embrace equity”, she reflected on her own life journey.

“Back in the days, the Cook Islands Government gave out limited scholarships to school leavers to go either to Fiji or New Zealand and I was fortunate to receive one to study nursing in New Zealand.

“This was the beginning of many more opportunities. Were these equal or equitable opportunities ... I did not reflect on this then.”

For Iro, the past few years have been a real eye-opener.

“In 2020, The World Health Assembly declared 2020 The International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife. It was a year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale and to raise the awareness of the work of nurses and midwives and their contribution to Universal Health Coverage and the Sustainable development Goals,” Iro told the audience.

But it was also the year of the global Covid-19 pandemic, Iro reminded the audience.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on nurses worldwide,” she said

“Reports of burn-out, sickness, intention to leave, and retirement are climbing, as are attacks, abuse and violence against nurses. We hear that the rates of mental health illness among health and care workers since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic are spiraling.

“As leaders, it is our responsibilities to understand this better, to act quickly and to provide appropriate support where it is needed.”

Iro said policies that create safe working conditions, with appropriate training, appropriate protective equipment and appropriate pay structures are essential “if we are to retain the confidence of our workforce and support them to remain in the profession”.

“I believe that nurses and midwives have a key role and the potential to influence the landscape of health equity by expanding their roles, working in new ways and settings as they work with the people in their communities.

“The effectiveness of healthcare is closely linked to the state of the nursing profession. As we look to the future beyond the pandemic, boosting nurse education and leadership, and including a nursing voice in all decisions about the future of health systems and policies, will be essential if we are to create more equitable services and better outcomes for patients.

“I urge us all to work together – those from government ministries, the private sector, our NGOs and civil society to make a more inclusive, just, and fair world for women, girls, men, and boys everywhere.”