Honorable Ministers and Assistant Ministers

Honorable Members of Parliament

Staff of the Ministry for Women, Youth and Children’s Affairs

Team from the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre

UN Women colleagues:

Ni sa bula Vinaka, Namaste and Assalamu Aleykum to you all!

I am honored to be asked to give the closing remarks at this workshop on gender-based violence and human rights. It gives me an opportunity to talk about two issues that are central to the achievement of the Sustainable Development agenda, specifically its Goal 5 for Gender Equality and Goal 16 for Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. These two issues are gender-based violence and women’s participation in politics – each an important concern of its own, with a strong link between the two.

Gender-based violence

As you would have heard during the workshop, violence against women and girls is a global pandemic that affects 1 in 3 women in their lifetime. Other than being a violation of human rights, it is a form of gender-based discrimination and a barrier to gender equality and a barrier to women and girls realizing their full potential socially, economically and politically. When half the population faces impediments to realising their full potential, any country’s development is, no doubt, negatively impacted. This applies to both developed and developing countries alike.

While there is still a lack of accurate data on violence against women in many parts of the world, results of studies conducted in some countries highlight the very high costs associated with it. In India, women can lose an average of at least five paid work days for each incident of intimate partner violence, which translates to a loss of 25% of salary each time an incident of violence happens. In Australia, violence against women and children costs an estimated $11.38 billion per year.

One characteristic of violence against women and girls is that it knows no social or economic boundaries and affects women of all socio-economic backgrounds. While the focus is on “violence against women and girls,” it is important to remember that it is a matter that involves both men and women, boys and girls.

Given its complexity, violence against women requires a whole-of-society approach and needs to be addressed at all levels – in families, schools, communities and government – both at the local and national levels. It requires examining social norms, attitudes and behaviors which perpetuate it. As a parent, I must add it is about how we raise our children and what values of equality we instill in them.

We also need appropriate institutional systems to effectively deal with VAWG, and Parliaments play a critical part in putting those in place.

The role of Parliament

All policies, laws, and budget decisions impact in one way or another on women, and have the potential to increase their vulnerability to violence. And this is where your role as MPs and leaders is so important.

Parliament is uniquely placed to make a difference in gender equality through both its legislative powers and its powers of scrutiny of the actions of government. As the legislative arm of the State, it is strategically placed to drive the changes at the national level that can help put an end to violence against women and girls. The role of Parliament is essential in ensuring that the legal frameworks and instruments that prevent it, protect its victims, and prosecute the perpetrators, are in place and are put in action.

The Fiji Parliament is ahead of most other national legislatures in having Standing Order 110 (2) which requires Standing Committees to ‘give full consideration to the principle of gender equality to ensure all matters are considered with regard to the impact and benefit on both men and women equally’.

In 2017, we were pleased to partner with the Fiji Parliament on publishing a practical toolkit on ‘Scrutinising Legislation from a Gender Perspective’, an initiative to assist MPs in mainstreaming gender equality in their legislative and oversight functions. So, Parliament has indeed the framework and the tools in place to ensure positive gender equality outcomes for the Fijian people.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, of which Fiji is a member, in its publication “Parliaments Take Action on Violence against Women: Priority actions for Parliaments” outlines six priorities to effectively address violence against women and girls. These are:

  1. Adopting a comprehensive legal framework
  2. Making sure that laws are implemented
  3. Educating and sensitizing, that recognizes Parliamentarians as opinion leaders and policymakers
  4. Building partnerships and making sure the voice of women and girls is heard
  5. Showing strong political will
  6. Establishing a sound institutional framework and national bodies with the mandate, power and capacity to take action.

The importance of women in politics

Women’s empowerment and political participation are a matter of human rights. While the right to vote and contest elections is widely available to women all over the world, the goal of gender balance in political institutions is still a long way from being achieved.

The Pacific Island region is no exception. In our region, the level of women’s representation in Parliament is the lowest in the world – only 7.5% of elected representatives are female in the 15 Pacific countries where UNDP works. That’s 42 seats held by women, out of a total of 559. UNDP is committed, through its regional Women in Politics and Parliamentary support programmes, to assisting Parliaments, political parties, civil society and candidates to build their capacity and increase the level of women’s representation at both local and national level.

While the number of Pacific women MPs is increasing slowly from an already low base, the number of women candidates standing in elections is increasing significantly; for example, in the June 2018 Cook Islands election, 20.5% of the candidates are female; in 2014 it was 13.5%. The challenge is to convert this into electoral success for women.

And it is a formidable challenge. Huge barriers remain: ‘money politics’ in some countries; inadequate access to campaign finance; lack of community and family support; cultural norms that reject women’s political leadership; and in some countries, electoral laws that condition that candidates must resign public service jobs if they stand.

Why is this important? Apart from it being a matter of human rights, we know that countries with higher levels of gender equality have higher economic growth, and that Parliaments with higher levels of women MPs successfully take up – and resolve – a wider range of issues based on broader perspectives and experiences.

The situation for women in Parliament in Fiji

With eight women MPs in Parliament corresponding to 16% of the total number, Fiji is near the top of the Pacific Island league with Cook Islands also at 16%, second to Niue at 25%. But Fiji has the largest actual number of women MPs in the region. Your women MPs – and the Speaker – have been supporting current and future women politicians from other Pacific countries by sharing their wisdom and expertise.

I must note that in Fiji women are in senior leadership positions in Parliament. Honourable Speaker is a champion for women in politics and for gender equality in Parliament. Of eight women MPs, one is the Leader of the Opposition, two are Ministers, two are Assistant Ministers and one is a Party whip. They are not only leaders, but role models – and we need more of them!

The role of male champions

But it’s not only women who need to keep breaking the proverbial glass ceilings. I would like to highlight the importance of men and boys – males in Parliament, in businesses, in schools and in the wider community – standing up as champions and advocates both for tackling gender-based violence and for supporting women leaders. Neither gender-based violence nor the lack of women in politics is an issue solely for women – they are issues for all of us.

Let me conclude by thanking the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation for this initiative and involving Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and other partners in delivering it. Parliament is the right place to tackle not only the legal regime around gender-based violence, but also to begin changing societal norms and stereotypes through a group of influential role models. I’m sure your participation in this workshop will be hugely reassuring for many victims of discrimination, harassment and assault who suffered from maltreatment and abuse, and who continue to endure it.

I would like to wish you all the best in your future work on these important gender equality issues.

Vinaka Vakalevu and a blessed weekend to you all.

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