Being the First: Women Leaders in the Pacific Islands

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Ceridwen Spark, John Cox and Jack Corbett

February 2018

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See also Rules of thumb for women leaders in the Pacific, and beyond (Ceridwen Spark in The Interpreter, 22 February 2018)

Women in the Pacific face many barriers women to participating in formal politics. Yet some defy these barriers, are elected to parliament, and achieve high office. This paper describes the experiences of three such women: President Hilda Heine from the Marshall Islands; the Honorable Fiame Naomi Mata’afa from Samoa; and Dame Carol Kidu from Papua New Guinea.

These women each won senior leadership positions in government. As the ‘first’ women to reach the apex of parliamentary politics, their stories offer valuable insights for donors and other reformers seeking to address gender imbalance in the Pacific and beyond. These women had to learn how and when to take a stand. They used their family and political networks, alongside their education, expertise and international networks, to navigate male-dominated political environments in highly politically-savvy ways. They built strong social and cultural capital. No amount of training can substitute for these skills, or for the slow and steady engagement required to forge the reputation necessary to succeed.

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