Sunday, August 12, 2012

The gender mind bender

Last week the Solomon Islands Province of Malaita elected a woman into the National Parliament. She's the second woman ever in the country to be elected nationally. Now, the interesting thing about this is that Malaita is one of the patrilineal provinces (meaning that when a couple marries it is the woman who moves to the man's place) and has a reputation for being very strong in Kastom (custom) and quite patriarchal in thinking. Other provinces like Isabel and Makira are matrilineal.

So, on the one hand, people are a little surprised that Malaita should lead the way on female representation in parliament. On the other, there is talk of Vika Lusibaea only being elected because of her husband, who was very popular in the region but banned from politics due to his involvement in war crimes. She promised to continue her husband's agenda. I heard that some felt that since democratic elections are a western imposition and not Kastom, so why not go the whole hog and elect a woman!

As these issues play out on the national stage, we grapple with gender and power dynamics at the village and organisational levels. One of the challenges of the project I am involved in is to promote gender equity in the communities that we work with. For us, it also means thinking about enabling real participation of women in decision making, and making spaces for people to talk about gender roles and how men and women are sharing workloads and decision making power in the home and modelling both male and female leadership at the organisational level. It's also about taking a tough stand on gender based violence.

However, I am finding that it's wise not to make assumptions or quick judgements. The only man in Solomon Islands to be considered a gender expert is our beloved Grayham, who comes from Malaita. And it's the men from Makira who are currently not happy with me because I support the appointment of women into positions of leadership. At the same time, I have had more meaningful discussions with men that I work with in Solomon Islands about gender than I ever do in Australia.

Another thing that annoys me in this whole development scene is Australian men coming in and making judgements about "gender issues" in Solomons without looking at the plank in their own eye. While more than a third of Australian women have experienced domestic violence and men still make up the majority of CEOs in our sector, I think we should be very careful about getting on our high horses and demanding  miraculous changes in behaviour and attitude overnight in places like Solomon Islands when it's taken 60 years to see any meaningful progress in Australia.

However, I believe that change is possible. As we've seen from this recent election, and from changes in livestyle, dress and eating habits, people all over the world can and do adapt to changing circumstances in both positive and negative ways. We just need to encourage healthy changes, and support people who are at the forefront of challenging less helpful beliefs and practices. So, as Malaita heralds a new era of politics in Solomon Islands, let's wait and see - maybe other positive changes will follow.

No comments: