Challenging the Patriarchy: it’s not only a “women’s” issue

2 May 2024
Image Source    Pacific Community

We hear about the gender gap and the constant battle for equality. Despite the gains towards bridging this gap, the reality is that gender inequality remains prevalent and ingrained in communities across the Pacific and the world. Women and girls are subjected to discrimination and are not treated equally alongside men in social, political, health, education, and other aspects of life. A key indicator of inequality is the prevalence of violence against women and girls, with the Pacific having twice the global average of intimate partner violence. The Pacific’s regional commitment to address gender equality is for the dignity, freedom, and well-being of the Pacific population.

In this article, we sit down with Mereseini Rakuita, a trailblazing force in the Pacific who has gained the respect, admiration and most importantly, the hearts of the people she serves as the Principal Strategic Lead – Pacific Women and Girls at the Pacific Community (SPC).

Who is Mereseini Rakuita?

I grew up in the coastal community of Natewa Bay in Fiji. I used to play in the ocean, collect firewood and coconuts, and eat fresh pawpaw from the plantation while watching my mum, aunts and grandmothers collect food each day to put on the table.

Fast forward a few years, I had the honour to serve my people as a State Solicitor for the Office of the Attorney General, then as a member of parliament also appointed to Cabinet. Initially, I was Minister for Lands and Mineral Resources, the first woman in the role, and then Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation.  A lot was achieved by working with some incredible teams and I feel I was given a unique opportunity to create change.

Now, I’m the Principal Strategic Lead – Pacific Women and Girls at the Pacific Community (SPC) working with the executive team across the breadth of the organisation. Here, I’m championing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls across the Pacific region, internally and externally, with our partners and member countries and territories. Change comes from within, and it’s my role to support SPC and the amazing people who work here to understand and ensure that these principles of equality and empowerment are central to SPC’s work. It’s about encouraging and supporting gender transformative changes across divisions, and across communities small and large.

Can you explain the work of Pacific Women Lead?

Pacific Women Lead (PWL) aims to promote women’s leadership, realise women’s rights, and increase the effectiveness of regional gender equality efforts. Partnerships are key to achieving this! 

The PWL at SPC programme, receiving more than AUD 55 million, is part of the broader AUD 170 million PWL portfolio supported by the Australian Government. The PWL portfolio has several delivery partners with SPC – and its PWL at SPC programme – being the key implementing partner.

Through PWL at SPC, existing initiatives are being strengthened such as Women in Maritime and Women in Energy. We are also deepening relationships with crisis centres, civil society, and other grantees. 

In addition to supporting and coordinating regional and national convenings, PWL at SPC also works closely with the Australian Government to maximise opportunities for gender transformative change. Through the coordination of PWL at SPC, a meeting was arranged between senior Australian Ministers in Canberra, Australia, and SPC’s Principal Strategic Lead, Director General and its Director of the Human Rights and Social Development (HRSD) division. That was followed by a Pacific Roundtable for HRSD, in a collaboration between Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). This was a strong show of very senior engagement in ‘shifting the dial’ towards SPC’s commitment to greater gender equality in the Pacific.

Why is gender equality important?

Gender equality is a fundamental human right. It is also a moral imperative that is necessary for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world. It’s unacceptable in this day and age, that women and girls, who make up half of the world’s population, are still facing inequality. The fact that they continue to be underrepresented in political leadership and are burdened with an unfair share of unpaid domestic work needs to be addressed. Girls are born into a world where their access to proper nutrition, healthcare and other services is limited. It’s time to put an end to these injustices and support the participation of women and girls in decision-making at all levels. Women and girls deserve the opportunity to lead and make decisions that affect their lives, their families, and their communities. The well-being of women, girls, and their families will improve as we create enabling environments that support their growth and success.

Why does SPC work on this?

SPC understands that the Pacific isn’t fully utilising the human resources we have as a region when women aren’t equally represented in nation-building.  For me, it is really simple; if we are at this stage of development by focusing mostly on half of our population, why don’t we also focus on the other half of our population and unleash our full potential as Pacific people?

At SPC, we aim to inspire and motivate transformational change to bring about an equitable and gender-sensitive organisational culture, internally and externally. This is supported through Pacific Women Lead, the Women in Leadership programme, the Principal Strategic Lead – Pacific Women and Girls’ position, and other initiatives across all divisions that drive gender equality and women’s empowerment.

SPC is also keen to further build stakeholder engagement and networking with the Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific (CROP) and Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs) to garner support for institutional awareness and change on issues pertaining to gender equality and women in leadership.

PWL is at the centre of SPC’s regional work on gender equality.  Under Pacific Women Lead, SPC will provide technical, convening and funding support to member governments, civil society, and other partners.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the Pacific when it comes to achieving gender equality, and how is Pacific Women Lead addressing them?

Gender equality is not a “women’s issue” and should not be treated as such.  However, it is still not being given the priority it deserves in our development agenda.
It’s crucial to understand that gender equality affects everyone, regardless of gender. We must embed gender equality in all aspects of our lives and take responsibility for creating change towards achieving it. This means ensuring that we remove stereotypes in how we talk to our children and family, equally, share the household work and care burden, and work towards gender equality and social inclusion for all people in the Pacific, regardless of their diversity.

We can no longer accept the narrative that gender equality is solely a woman’s issue, as it involves men too. We must all take personal responsibility for addressing the power imbalance and patriarchal inequalities that discriminate against women and girls. Programmes like the PWL can help, but ultimately, it’s up to us as individuals and communities to drive change and bring about a more equitable society for all.

What role should the international community play in supporting gender equality efforts in the Pacific, and how effective has this support been so far? 

The Pacific region has ground-breaking initiatives such as those working with crisis centres, and faith-based and sporting organisations, which are being shared with partners globally as transformative approaches, grounded in best practice.

It is important the Pacific, and all regions of the world, share lessons learned and adaptive approaches to improving gender equality. Also important is the sharing of financial support to the Pacific from the governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, the United States of America, and others plus organisations such as the European Union and United Nations have a great impact. 

This interaction between Pacific and international partners is proving mutually beneficial, as initiatives share global learnings, including south-south exchanges, to improve innovative approaches to ending violence against women and girls, and the empowerment of women and girls, through locally led and tailored, or adapted programming.  There has been a lot of investment by the international community thus far and a lot has been achieved. We can build on this success for greater impact if the financial investment of the international community into the region for any and all programs had a gender component to it; in other words, mainstream gender into all investment into the region.

How has Australia supported gender equality in the Pacific?

The Pacific Women Lead portfolio, which funds the PWL at SPC programme, is solely supported by the Australian Government, which is committed to improving gender equality. The work of PWL at SPC mirrors this commitment and complements other gender equality programmes striving for equality to improve the lives of women and men, girls and boys across the Pacific.

What steps do you think need to be taken to ensure that gender equality efforts in the Pacific are sustainable and have a lasting impact?

Where to start. Firstly, by saying there is a need to ensure that gender equality efforts are sustainable globally, whether we talk about Australia or the Pacific Island countries and territories, this is a shared challenge.

The work of PWL at SPC builds on many decades of work of the women’s movement to remove gender inequality and empower women and girls. Ending violence against women and girls is central to addressing inequality. This is not new. But it’s increasingly critical to continue to build momentum for gender equality in the Pacific to enable us to effectively respond to the crisis of climate change action and the growing need for sustainable economic development. We need women and men, girls and boys, of the Pacific united and working together. 

Governments and decision-makers are increasingly finding the relevant tools to convert their gender equality commitments into actions, knowing the benefits that equality and full participation of all community members can bring. That is when we will have sustainable, more peaceful, and prosperous communities and nations.

Our Leaders hold the levers for change.  They have shown great leadership and commitment to gender equality through the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration and also through the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. Ultimately, this commitment to gender equality must show in national budgets. When we see a consistent and healthy allocation of resources at a national level towards gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, we know we can see a more sustainable impact on the ground.

Mereseini’s efforts in supporting the SPC executive team and all the organisation’s divisions to promote and mainstream gender equality is a testament to her unwavering spirit and dedication. Through positive actions, messages of hope and acting as an inspiration for others, Mereseini is a role model for women and men across the Pacific to follow her lead. We can rest assured that the empowerment of women and girls will be an increasing priority for SPC and across the Pacific.