Closing gender gap debated at regional forum

Gender inequality figures in the Asia-Pacific region are stark, with glaring disparities between countries.

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For example, female political representation in Australia and New Zealand has reached the recommended critical mass of 30 percent but the figure remains at about 3 percent or below for countries in the Pacific.

The current problems facing women in the region – and possible solutions – were discussed at a two-day conference in Cairns.

The role of women and their untapped potential became a key launching point for conference discussions.

“If we look at issues of when we invest in women in the economy or personally, it comes back five-fold into the economy, it comes back five-fold into the family and the same-ratios don’t apply to men,” said conference organiser, Professor Hurriyet Babacan, director at James Cook University’s Cairns Institute.

“In that sense, the multiplier effects – in terms of the returns and how they would cost that – are significant.”

And across the Asia-Pacific region significant barriers remain to female participation in society, argued Babacan.

“As the UN points out, women’s progress is less. There’s still significant inequalities to address on a range of themes across all of the Asia Pacific from political representation to access to education and basic rights such as food, housing, shelter,” she said.

Despite the variable status of women in the Asia Pacific region, Professor Babacan said there is much to be gained from comparing the strategies and experiences among the different countries in the region.

“It’s an advantage because of what it provides,” she says. “People who have come through a particular historical trajectory…they talk about what that process has been so countries that are either at the starting or in the middle of that continuum, learn from that. The diversity is definitely a strength.”

Boosting male support for greater female representation in parliament, refocusing on the informal economy and creating greater awareness of gender equality were some of the key ideas being discussed, said Professor Babacan.

And one conference paper, in particular, raised interesting possibilities on how to awaken ideas of gender equality.

“Most of our apparatus – you know the UN and government apparatus – tends to target adult females. Whereas what this research is showing is that it’s coming from childhood awakenings and awareness, so that was a very interesting piece of work,” said Hurriyet Babacan.

Travelling from India to the conference in Cairns was Aruna Gajbhiye, an associate professor at Tirpude College of Social Work in Nagpur.

Working in the area of sex trafficking, she says the safety of women is still a key issue in the region.

“The problem is growing like wildfire and women and girls are in very dangerous positions,” said Professor Gajbhiye, who co-ordinates operations to rescue trafficked women.

Although numbers are hard to document because of the underground nature of the practice, she says the number of sex trafficked girls or women have increased five-fold over the past seven years to 35,000 cases a year in her city alone. The age of trafficked females can be as young as seven.

Aruna Gajbhiye said there is a reluctance to talk about sex trafficking, but argued international awareness of the problem would be key to preventing trafficking that often operates across borders.

“We can develop some sort of sensitisation to what’s going on around the world in nearby countries. If we are sensitised towards the problems and towards the situation in which women are struggling, we can contribute to making their lives safer.”

The empowerment of women themselves to say no to sexual violence, will also be critical, she adds.

“I think we should teach our girls how to say no, especially in the Asian countries because many of the girls don’t know how to say no to the sexual violence especially, and they surrender very easily.”

The only female politician in the last two parliaments of Papua New Guinea, Dame Carol Kidu is the current Opposition leader.

She describes the last five years of progress on the role of women in Papua New Guinea as a case of three steps forward and one step back.

“In terms of politics, the statistics they speak for themselves. It is a very difficult and hostile area for women to get into the political arena in the Pacific region,” said Dame Kidu.

“There are some women starting to get into local government politics and that’s excellent, because that is really at the point where women can make impact. But at the national level it has been a real battle.”

Over the past six years, Dame Carol Kidu has spearheaded a push to pass a bill for an additional 22 temporary female seats in the Papua New Guinea Parliament.

But the bill failed to pass after a third attempt earlier this year.

“There were very polarised views and of course the attempt to try and get reserve seats for this election in the final outcome did not succeed,” she said.

“But the attempt in itself was great progress because there was an enormous amount of dialogue that went on and there were people who changed their attitudes. And I mean it takes a long time [for change in female political participation] in any society.”

Despite the criticism against quota systems to mandate gender equality, Dame Kidu argued legislation is the only way to kickstart the process of boosting female participation in her country.

“Getting women around the decision-making tables at all levels of government and in all fields not just political or bureaucratic tables, but also the private sector, is very fundamental. Until we get the women’s voices in the decision-making it’s like having a bird with one wing,” she said.