The election of the Federated States of Micronesia’s first woman to the country’s congress shows why it is important to incorporate local custom into Pacific gender advocacy, Gonzaga Puas and Norleen Oliver write.
On 29 November 2021, voters in the Southern Namoneas district elected Dr Perpetua Konman as the first woman in the Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). It caught the nation by surprise, as many believed that the likelihood of a woman being elected in the near future was small.
Until then, FSM was the only country in the Pacific to have never elected a woman to its national parliament. Since 2011, eight women had attempted to be elected to Congress, but without success.
The male dominance of national politics is in contrast to the cultural status of women in FSM. Many FSM island communities are matriarchal, with women controlling economic resources and thereby political influence.
In the pre-colonial era, men were the public face for families, taking their instructions from their mothers to ensure the extended families’ standing in the community. The man’s role was also to protect the family or clan’s reputation should violence erupt in the public sphere. Conversely, women were called upon to resolve community frictions because of their economic power and perceived skill as negotiators.
This social structure, however, was altered significantly during FSM’s rule by four successive colonial powers: Spain, Germany, Japan, and the United States. Colonialism brought sexist ideologies to the islands which altered the order of gender relations. In addition, the introduction of Christianity undermined the social dynamics of gender as it favoured an emerging patriarchal order.
Consequently, patriarchal ideologies were embedded into the nation’s psyche, limiting the influence of women. This ideological foundation curtailed women’s political advancement in modern FSM and discouraged many women from participating in the national decision-making process.
Colonial administrators and church leaders were typically men who exerted control in the political affairs of the islands. They downgraded the role of women, so that the political landscape reflected men’s ideological practices. Today, women are fighting to be recognised in the national political system, just as they were in the past.
Constitutionally, the FSM Congress is the country’s most powerful branch of government and the gateway to national leadership positions, including the presidency. To release men’s firm grip on the congress, the national government introduced Congressional Bill 17-147 in 2012, which sought to guarantee the representation of women in Congress by providing four reserved seats. However, the Bill failed to pass both times it was introduced.
Those against the bill argued women should run for congress based on merit against male competitors. This view was also supported by many women, as indicated by comments made during public hearings. This is reflective of a common view in FSM that political gender equity is an issue that is being pushed on to the country by outsiders, without local input.
Without affirmative action legislation in place, Dr Konman’s election to office took an alternative path, common in the Pacific – she became a widow. Shortly after her husband – Derensio Konman, the then sitting member for Southern Namoneas – died in September 2021, his constituents asked his wife to enter politics to continue his legacy.
Konman ran principally with her own political mantra but kept in mind her husband’s unfinished business in congress, namely his work to expand social programs in the region.
Also important in her success was the fact that Dr Konman had her own standing in the Chuukese community, the state in which her electoral district is located. This was thanks to her long service as a medical doctor in the community, as well as her reputation for practicing the Chuukese ideals of sufen and fairo (‘be humble’ and ‘respect Chuukese traditions’).
These factors meant that she came into the election with a pre-existing support base via her late husband in addition her own extended family and friends. Konman was granted further legitimacy by the fact that prior putting her hand up, she sought the approval of her district’s all-male legislators, municipal officers, and traditional leaders. This combination of strategies cemented her image as a person for the people, leading to her election as the first woman to the FSM Congress.
Reflecting on her win with this author, Konman noted: “It is crucial that the voice of women is heard at the top because they bear the future leaders of tomorrow. They also shape the lives of our future leaders physically, mentally and spiritually…women are important as well as their voice[s].”
For advocates of gender equality in politics, Konman’s election cautions against relying solely on legal instruments for progress; other strategies to support the election of women should be considered.
Advocates can utilise traditional practices or a combination of the modern and clanship systems to convince voters that women are no different from men in fulfilling political roles. By acknowledging traditional custom and beginning at the grassroots, gender campaigners can hope to normalise the place of women in politics, thereby opening more opportunities for future female leaders.
This article is based upon a paper published by ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.