Development, Environment & energy, Government and governance, Social policy, Education, Arts, culture & society | The Pacific

4 June 2020

The Pacific Islands Forum’s 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security is most likely to deliver on its promises when we acknowledge the vital roles that women play, Ali Gillies writes.

Gender is everywhere in Boe. At a glance, the Boe Declaration on Regional Security and its Action Plan might seem to treat gender as just another – mostly invisible – cross-cutting issue. But any serious consideration of the Boe Declaration and its implementation must conclude that an understanding of gender is critical to its success.

Indeed, by expanding the concept of security to specifically include human security, the Boe Declaration shifts the idea of national security from the ‘hard security’ male realm, to include many of the domains occupied by women, from food markets to peace processes.

So what does a gendered reading of the Declaration reveal?

The Declaration affirms that climate change remains the greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific. The increasing frequency and intensity of climate disasters has a greater impact on women than men.

Oxfam found that females accounted for 77 per cent of the deaths in Indonesian villages surveyed following the 2004 tsunami. There are plenty of reasons to suspect the same vulnerability in Pacific islands, although gender-specific data is scarce.

The contributing factors at play that cause significant impacts on women may seem trivial — until the tsunami is at your door. Fewer women than men can swim, scale a palm tree or drive a car. Women’s responsibilities, such as looking after children and the elderly, will often mean that they are less mobile. This can have deadly consequences during times of danger. When security crises inevitably heightened stress, there’s plenty of evidence to show that rates of gender based violence (GBV) increase.

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Understanding how best to respond to humanitarian emergencies — such as those which we can anticipate with increasing climate change — has changed over the years. Once the response was led by militaries; and it’s certainly true that the militarised models of disaster response can deliver highly effective logistics support for emergency aid. But if you leave an army to distribute food from the back of a truck, you may end up with those who are strongest cornering the market.

When community-based organisations involving women are in charge you’re more likely to see orderly lines of women receiving family allocations. Women’s knowledge and expertise is vital to their family’s and community’s resilience and recovery. Involving both men and women in planning and response delivers better results.

Within their households and communities, women play central roles in human security. Women and men have different knowledge, responsibilities and priorities about food security, water security, and health security.

Without accounting for these gendered roles Pacific states will have a hard time ensuring human security. Increasingly we are seeing women champions making a difference at the local to national levels.

While the Pacific values its reputation as a region of peace, its recent histories have included internal strife and violent conflict. Higher levels of gender inequality are associated with higher levels of interstate violence and GBV is positively correlated with a state’s recourse to violent tactics to settle disputes. The nations of the Pacific—particularly in Melanesia—have some of the highest rates of GBV in the world.

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But on a more optimistic note, the inclusion of women in peace processes increases the likelihood of lasting peace by more than a decade. As Fijian women’s rights activist Sharon Bhagwan Rolls said women in the Pacific “have been instrumental and often the group trusted most by both sides of a conflict. As such, women have often been the first negotiators for a ceasefire. Women have often paved the way for United Nations (UN) and regional peacekeeping and peace support operations, for the signing of peace agreements and the introduction of transitional processes.”

Traditional national security frameworks tend to focus on those areas historically dominated by men—militaries and police forces. But these institutions are changing. Colonels and police commissioners are increasingly recognising that their institutions are much more effective when women take up positions in the ranks, and in leadership. Diversity is in their national interests.

Women’s issues and voices should also be acknowledged in other ‘traditional security’ topics, such as transnational crime and cybersecurity, which are firmly on the Boe Declaration agenda. The rapidly evolving digital connectivity across the Pacific brings many opportunities—for increased access to market information, better educational resources and political voice.

But there are also well-known downsides of increased digital access, no less relevant in the Pacific. Social networking can bring cyberbullying, and more intense surveillance of partners. Where inequity between the sexes is already high these vulnerabilities are magnified.

Empowering women to be aware of the pitfalls, and to make the most of the opportunities will require them to be at the policy table and able to access information about digital security.

We know that policy development and implementation are stronger when they draw on a diversity of experiences and types of knowledge. If the full potential of Pacific societies is to be realised, the processes to ensure national and regional security must draw on the leadership and knowledge of women.

Ultimately, a gendered reading of Boe isn’t only about equity and human rights. It’s about making sure that the Boe Declaration delivers security for all the peoples of the Pacific.

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