Women’s leadership and localisation – a win-win in the Pacific
“When the pandemic ramped up and borders began to close, everything changed. In just a few days five of my colleagues were gone. They had to pack up their kids, their lives, and say goodbye. We didn’t know when – or if – they'd be back. It was crazy. But in many ways, we were better prepared than most for what was to come, because we already had shared, Pacific leadership.”
COVID-19 has changed the face of development in the Pacific – in some cases, literally. As border closures and uncertainty forced many international staff to pull out of Pacific island countries, local expertise and leadership moved to the forefront. But some development programs adapted better than others to the rapid changes, because they already had local expertise at the helm – Pacific women leaders. Development programs with strong, local leadership at the onset of the pandemic were best placed to transition to our ‘new normal’ of remote working.
Localisation involves ensuring local leaders, those best able to promote developmental change by successfully navigating a complex cultural, political and social context, are empowered to direct a development programs’ strategic planning and engagement. Across the Pacific, significant development initiatives are being successfully led by Pacific women, who are forging relationships and using their understanding of context to determine priorities and ensure that resources are directed to where it can best lead to sustainable change.
This is a significant and welcome shift. Many highly respected, long-standing local NGOs in the Pacific have long been led by local leaders and providing long-term stable support to such organisations is a key aspect of localisation. However, it is an entirely different phenomenon to see Pacific women at the helm of multi-million dollar Australian-funded development initiatives. To see these positions of power and decision-making being filled by Pacific women represents another welcome shift towards meaningful localisation.
The Partnerships Lead of the Pacific Women Support Unit in Suva is Tara Chetty, a Fijian woman, whose focus is building relationships and networks with stakeholders in the program’s 14 Pacific Island partner countries to ensure that the needs and priorities of women and girls are addressed. Tara has significant experience working with women’s rights organisations in the Pacific as well as deep credibility as a gender equality advocate. She works with Leonie Whyte, Programs Lead and an Australian, in an equitable co-leadership structure that - unusually for the development sector - is modelled on feminist best practice.
Under their leadership, Pacific Women has helped to ensure that the impacts of COVID-19 on women and girls are being heard, understood and addressed by governments, civil society and donors.
With the support of Pacific Women, essential domestic violence services have remained open, governments have been supported to understand the specific impacts of COVID-19 on women and girls to inform policy development and the vital work of Pacific Women’s many partners across the region has continued.
In Papua New Guinea (PNG), Mirriam Dogimab, a PNG national, heads the PNG Pacific Women Support Unit. Mirriam has extensive experience in program management and knowledge of the gender sector in PNG. She’s supported by an entirely PNG national team who manage over $40 million in grants to organisations working in PNG to support gender equality. Many of these organisations are local NGOs, led and staffed by Papua New Guinean women, such as Femili PNG, who do incredible and tireless work to support survivors of gender based violence and advocate on their behalf. Mirriam and her team play an important convening role, organising an annual learning event that brings together over 300 partners over 3 days of sharing ideas, strategies and lessons learned. Pacific Women’s work in PNG over many years with their partners is leading to a nuanced understanding of what it means to support transformative change to gender norms in PNG.
In Vanuatu, Shirley Tokon leads the Vanuatu Health Program, an adaptive program that promotes government-led, sustainable health reform. Shirley’s extensive networks and relationships, intimate understanding of country context and deep commitment to improving health outcomes, means she can work closely with her Ministry of Health counterparts to use politically astute strategies to build local momentum and ownership over the health reform agenda in Vanuatu. In the face of COVID-19 and the enormous challenges it has posed to Vanuatu’s health sector, Shirley’s leadership has never been more important.
The Balance of Power initiative aims to shift gender norms in the Pacific and promote women’s leadership. Given the inherent socio-cultural complexity of this objective, local leadership is essential.
Mereani Rokotuibau (Team Leader) and Jennifer Kalpokas Doan (Deputy Team Leader) set the vision and drive the strategic focus of the program. Their understanding of context, relationships, politics and what drives change in their societies make them uniquely placed to influence norm change.
Mereani and Jennifer have been instrumental in pivoting the operations of Balance of Power to maximise opportunities to promote women’s leadership in the COVID-19 environment. This has included supporting a women’s leadership coalition in Tonga to influence the ‘gender lens’ of the Government of Tonga COVID-19 stimulus package and include financial assistance to women working in the informal sector. They have also brokered first-time ever partnerships with the Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation and the Public Service Commission in Vanuatu to highlight women’s contribution to national development and in effective crisis responses.
Edwina Kotoisuva leads Australia’s large justice sector initiative in PNG. Edwina is Fijian and has a strong background in combatting gender based violence. Edwina has built over many years deep respect and solid relationships with her justice sector counterparts, a largely male dominated sector. As Team Leader, she has helped to lead significant shifts in the sector’s prioritisation of gender equality and family and sexual violence.
With vaccine rollouts commencing in Australia, and hopefully soon in the Pacific island region, there is hope that borders may get easier to cross in the near future. However, this doesn’t mean the development sector should simply revert to ‘business as usual’. Tara, Mirriam, Shirley, Mereani, Jennifer and Edwina are just a few examples of the outstanding leaders in the Pacific. The development community needs to work harder to address systemic barriers and create an enabling environment to support more women leaders from the region. They live and breathe the context they are from and have the deepest stake in the change they are working towards. With the localisation agenda being so critical to development effectiveness and sustainability, supporting women from the Pacific to take up leadership roles on programs designed to support developmental change in their region can only be a recipe for success.
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