Practice Parliaments: Promoting Women in Leadership in the Pacific
12 Mar 2017 by Lotte Geunis, Parliamentary Development Consultant
When I first learned that ‘Practice Parliaments’ would be part and parcel of my gender work in the Pacific, I was decidedly underwhelmed. I had worked on the promotion of women in politics before, and I could not see how women ‘playing parliament’ could possibly promote gender equality. I couldn’t see how it might inspire potential women candidates to step forward, and I certainly couldn’t see how it would convince voters - male or female - to look more favourably on women in politics.
My hesitation was not unfounded. The beauty of the isles can blind new visitors to the less rosy realities these societies harbour. While there are important differences between the island states, longstanding social, cultural and economic barriers block the road to equal opportunities for women across the region. This has left them strongly dependent on male family members, more likely to be poor, and more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Gender-based violence is pervasive and persistent.
Politics, unsurprisingly, is no exception. Throughout the Pacific, women continue to be marginalised in how decisions are made and how resources are allocated. Their lack of representation in national parliaments is a particularly painful reflection of the ongoing struggle for women in leadership: the overall percentage of women in parliaments stands at 6%, the lowest in the world.
With such a formidable challenge, what could Practice Parliaments hope to achieve?
Practice Parliaments offer women who are interested in entering politics the opportunity to step into the shoes of a Parliamentarian. The activity is designed as a “learning by doing” training that enables women to build their skills as prospective parliamentarians. They are briefed on key policy areas by relevant ministries and receive hands-on instructions on their roles as MPs by the Parliament Secretariat. The training concludes with a ‘practice’ sitting in the Parliament’s Chamber that allows participants to put their newly honed skills to the test.
“The Women's Practice Parliament has played a key role in helping female candidates win the constituencies of Betio and Teinainano both in South Tarawa. In the Teinainano constituency where I contested, there were five of us, all of whom had had some kind of involvement with the Practice Parliament, either as an organiser or a participant.” – Hon. Maere Tekanene, after winning her seat in the Oct 2011 Kiribati elections
Practice Parliaments also raise public awareness of women in politics. By broadcasting the mock session on national tv or radio, women are given a unique opportunity to demonstrate that they are every bit as capable as their male peers. They do so quite convincingly: in PNG, listeners called in to enquire ‘who those new MPs were’ they could hear debating bills on the radio…
My own scepticism largely dissipated when I saw fifteen women of all ages and backgrounds deliver a passionate parliamentary debate in Tuvalu. Having spent a week with them, I knew how far some of them had come (literally as well as figuratively, as some had travelled weeks to make their way to Funafuti from Tuvalu’s outer islands). They were curious, committed and overwhelmingly excited about this opportunity to learn and take part. Their enthusiasm was nothing short of infectious.
It is difficult to measure the lasting impact of such an exercise. I don’t know how many of the Tuvalu participants will run for office, and I certainly can’t confirm that the next Tuvalu parliament will count more women MPs. What I do know is that our participants came away from that week inspired and informed, and determined to speak up. I also know they will go back to their communities and encourage their sisters, friends and children to do the same. In a region so plagued by gender inequality, these are small but immeasurably important steps.
This year I am spending International Women’s Day at the second Women’s Practice Parliament in the Cook Islands. Rolled out to perfection by Hon Niki Rattle, Speaker of the Cook Islands Parliament, and her team, I once again find myself surrounded by participants who are taking to their seats in Parliament as though they’ve been theirs for years.
Practice Parliaments are no silver bullet to the extensive social, economic and political inequalities that persist between men and women in the Pacific. Much more will be needed to achieve gender equality. Looking around the Chamber today though, we have once again taken a few more steps in the right direction.