There are few countries where women remain unrepresented in parliament, but several of those are right on Australia’s doorstep.

The Pacific region has the world’s lowest rate of women in parliament when you exclude Australia and New Zealand from the figures, according to UN Women, with just 3.5% of women representing, compared to about 20% globally.

Recent Inter-Parliamentary Union data highlights the problem. Of the seats available in the lower houses of some Pacific island states, women account for:

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  • Tuvalu — 1 of 15 seats
  • Samoa —  2 of 49 seats
  • Tonga — 1 of 28 seats
  • Vanuatu — 1 of 52 seats
  • Marshall Islands — 1 of 33 seats
  • Micronesia — 0 of 14 seats
  • Nauru — 0 of 18 seats
  • Solomon Island — 2 of 50 seats (August change)
  • Palau — 0 of 16 seats
  • Papua New Guinea — 3 of 109 seats (August change)

The tiny portion of women representing in Pacific island parliaments was an issue raised by UN Women executive director and Chile’s first female prime minister, Michelle Bachelet, at a forum in Canberra last week.

It might pale in comparison to the region’s other significant problem affecting women: that one in three Pacific island women who have been in a relationship have experienced domestic violence. In Papua New Guinea, 70% of women experience domestic violence. Sadly, the research shows many women believe men are justified in perpetrating such violence, according to UN Women.

But female leadership in the community, in business and in government can and will help. Currently, UN Women is using its Partnership to Improve Markets project to show how women’s leadership can empower women by addressing issues occurring in their workplace.

One central market in the Solomon Islands has long had a reputation for being dirty, overcrowded and dangerous working environment for its mostly female vendors. On the recommendation of UN Women, a female leader was appointed manager of the market for the first time. Martha Horawipu has since been credited with creating a safer, healthier workplace for the women, something she achieved by looking to collaborate on the problems and needs of the markets female workers.

The model is being pushed across the region. In Fiji, eight markets have women vendor leaders with one such town, Ba, now boasting a market with toilets, showers, kitchens and a handicraft centre for training and diversifying the skills of traders.

They’re small examples, but ways that female leadership affect the lives, health and well-being of pockets of women enormously. Women in leadership can dramatically progress traditional mindsets regarding women’s workplace participation and the rights and conditions they can expect to achieve, as well as their rights and well-being outside of work.

So it’s welcome news that the empowerment and welfare of women in the Pacific will be one of the key agenda items up for discussion in the Cook Islands this week, when the region’s key leaders convene for the Pacific Islands Forum. Bachelet will attend the forum, alongside Prime Minister Julia Gillard and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. They are expected to announce a 10-year commitment to assist women in the region.

If getting female leaders in markets can produce noticeable results, just think what seeing more women represented in parliament will do for the region.

*This article was first published at Women’s Agenda

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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