Government and governance | The Pacific

19 March 2021

A more localised, culturally sensitive approach is required when supporting women’s electoral programs in the Pacific, Sonia Palmieri writes.

With elections expected in Samoa and Tonga in 2021, and Fiji and Papua New Guinea in 2022, development partners will have already turned their attention to women’s inclusion in those electoral processes as a means by which to reach international democratic standards.

Political economy analysis (PEA) — an evidence-based assessment of the political dynamics between structures, institutions, and actors in a given context, used to inform policy and programming — has become a fundamental part of program design and implementation, but remains underutilised in the particular area of women’s electoral programming.

In their 2016 review of women’s candidate training, Australian National University researchers Julien Barbara and Kerryn Baker pointed to the importance of individual women candidates conducting their own localised political economy analyses, preferably at the micro or ‘electorate level’.

This author has conducted a separate form of gender-sensitive PEA, undertaken via a development program to inform the design of a candidate training workshop prior to the Nauru general election in August 2019. Through this process, key lessons can be observed for future gender-sensitive PEA’s undertaken in supporting women candidates in the Pacific.

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In 2018, the governments of Australia and New Zealand funded an electoral program managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the small island state of Nauru. Among other things, the program aimed to enhance women’s electoral participation. To that date, only three women had successfully contested elections since Nauruan independence in 1968.

This author became the project’s gender adviser six months before the election was held, and faced similar challenges to previous gender advisers, who were parachuted into the role without a briefing on gender and politics in the specific country context, with all the consequent risks and challenges that entails. Evidence on candidate training in the Pacific suggests much of the existing course content is ‘irrelevant’, with a tendency to set women up ‘to fail’.

The first step in designing a localised workshop agenda was to work with National Electoral Commission (NEC) staff to identify appropriate questions and stakeholders, in order to collectively map the gendered landscape of elections in Nauru. Focus group discussions were set up with NEC staff, church leaders, community leaders, and previous male and female candidates, including the two women who had most recently run successful electoral campaigns – Charmaine Scotty and Gabrissa Hartman.

This electoral gender mapping uncovered some key features of the Nauruan gendered political landscape. First, it was observed that the Nauruan policy and legal framework presented well-known obstacles for women candidates. Equally well known was the resistance of political elites to removing these obstacles.

Previous election observation reports – including by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the Commonwealth Secretariat – recommended the legal requirement that candidates in the public service resign their jobs prior to the election be abolished.

Observers considered the law a key obstacle to women’s candidacy given their strong representation in the Nauruan public service, including at senior levels. The resignation requirement forced women — often primary breadwinners — to resign three months ahead of an election. But without any certainty around actual dates, which are determined at the discretion of the head of state, this jeopardised the livelihoods of many families.

The gender mapping was useful in identifying policymakers’ continued resistance to implementing this recommendation, including to suggestions that aspiring candidates be granted leave without pay or that unsuccessful candidates be reinstated in the public service.

A second key observation found that faith-based organisations approach the question of women’s leadership very differently. Some organisations continued to preach more traditional conceptualisations of women’s roles. In these organisations, women were seen as the ‘mother and the carer of our house’ and welcomed as leaders of the choir or fellowship group, but not of sermons.

Other faith-based organisations, however, noted that they were actively working — albeit with varying degrees of success — to shift those social norms. One church leader was quoted as saying “we have tried to deny the culture of women coming last — ladies have to speak, men have to feed themselves — but we are struggling on this.”

In some of these churches, women were able to preach from the pulpit, contribute to decision-making and run their own outreach programs. This analysis was useful in identifying those organisations the project could work with — particularly in a context devoid of non-government organisations — and the support bases that women candidates might have in the lead-up to the election.

The third key observation from the electoral gender mapping project found that while social norms across the Pacific often legitimise men as political leaders, Nauruan-specific norms add a further element of difficulty for aspiring women leaders.

One observer noted that ‘the term “wang” — meaning you’re jealous — gets used a lot [about women]’; ‘it’s a small island — we don’t like seeing women succeed’; ‘they think it’s not fair if she gets there and I can’t’.

Nauruan political culture also affects women’s ability to cultivate important sources of financial and political support. Focus group discussions pointed to women’s ‘hidden networks’ in contrast with men’s more open networks, particularly drinking networks.

By analysing this process, three key lessons arise for similar activities in the Pacific.

Firstly, gender-sensitive PEA work must be done well in advance of an election. Designers of electoral programs should remember that gender-sensitive PEA is not a focal activity, but rather a means by which to determine the appropriate entry points, actors, and knowledge required to support women’s candidacy more effectively.

Secondly, global toolkits require translation into local contexts. While global tools are useful in terms of the normative guidelines they provide, local partners are essential in translating these into locally appropriate tools that can uncover contextual specificities.

And thirdly, a flexible and adaptive approach to electoral assistance programs is required. With good team leadership, new deliverables — including gender-sensitive PEA — can be worked into rigid project implementation plans. Development organisations, including the United Nations, have an opportunity to reconsider the skill sets of their electoral program team leaders, and recruit more adaptive and politically sensitive managers.

In order to better support women candidates in the Pacific, democratic governance and electoral strengthening programs need to take a more culturally attuned and long-term approach to women’s political participation to reflect the gendered pathways to politics in the region.

This article is based upon a paper published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.

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