Features | Society | Oceania

A New Day for Solomon Islands’ Women?

The Solomon Islands now has 2 women MPs – its most ever. It’s both progress and a sign of how far is left to go.

Joshua Mcdonald
A New Day for Solomon Islands’ Women?

Solomon Islands children gather to wave to the motorcade of visiting Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

Credit: Presidential Office of the Republic of China (Taiwan)

The recent national election in the Solomon Islands resulted in the highest representation of women in government the country has had since it gained independence in 1978.

In a country where women have long suffered high rates of gender-based violence and discrimination, the election results were a cause for celebration. However, with only two women elected to a parliament of 50, many Solomon Islanders are left wondering whether pursuing gender equality will be on the government’s agenda.

One of the two female MPs, Lanelle Tanangada, has been re-elected to a full term following a by-election landslide win in October of last year. The by-election was called after her husband, Jimson Tanangada, lost his seat in an election petition brought forward by one of the candidates Ms. Tanangada went on to defeat.

“There is progress in her re-election,” said Jackson Tasa, the gender-based violence coordinator for World Vision. “In the by-election and in the national election she beat a former prime minister. This is big. I believe we will have more women in government in the next election.”

Despite Mr. Tanangada losing the seat, many believe Ms. Tanangada won the by-election due to her husband having previously held the position and being widely popular. Winning the national election, however, shows the people of her constituency were happy with how she governed and were willing to vote her in for a full term.

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Political observers see Ms. Tanangada’s re-election as a shift in public opinion on whether women can successfully serve as senior government officials.

With few women holding positions of power in the country, whether that’s within community, government, or in the private sector, female candidates face many obstacles in running in an election.

Since 1978 the Solomon Islands has held 10 general elections, yet only four women have won a seat in parliament, compared to 322 men.

The other elected female MP, Freda Tuki, ran a very successful campaign in the province of Temotu in 2014 and again in 2019. “It was a tough, on the ground kind of campaign,” she said.

Tuki went on to say that it is women who have to adjust their mindset if they want to better their circumstances, and that they need to work more. She also criticized a woman who ran against her in the 2019 election.

“You see, there was another woman who ran against me, this clearly tells us that women are not working together,” she said.

In 2018, the government voted on the Temporary Special Measures Act (TSM), which, if adopted, would have temporarily allocated 10 seats in parliament to women. During the vote, Tuki at first appeared to support the act, but ultimately voted against it.

“I really agree and support the idea,” said Tuki. “But from my point of view, looking at TSM as a democratic country, you have to run on a proper process where people can elect you and respect you as a genuinely elected leader.”

“We should start on the provincial level. This way, the people can see how women perform and then they can be elected up if they think they can do it on a national level,” she said.

With an overwhelming majority voting against the act, it’s clear that many other MPs agree with Tuki.  Supporters of the TSM argue it would have simply served as an opportunity for women to prove to voters that they can effectively govern, ultimately giving them a much higher chance of being elected once the measures are no longer in place. They argue that this is how Tanangada was re-elected.

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In a society where the men control almost all family assets, the first hurdle is securing funding. This was made more difficult this year when the government voted to increase the allowed spending on a campaign from SB$50,000 (US$6,100 USD) to SB$500,000.

Lanieta Leo, the former general secretary of the National Council of Women and a project officer for the New Zealand High Commission, believes a lack of money is the biggest hurdle for women in running for parliament. She opined that as women, “We do not get votes because we do not have the money to pay for votes, or to pay for goods to offer to people for votes. Therefore, we have less opportunities to get voted into parliament.”

Tuki had no such issue in financing her campaign. A well-connected businesswoman, she has worked in the logging industry for almost 20 years. She began working with several Asian logging companies and later obtained her own license and now brings in overseas contractors that work under her name.

Despite joining politics in 2014, Tuki was clear in pointing out she is a businesswoman, not a politician.

An associate of Tuki, who wishes to remain anonymous, is concerned that someone who currently serves as minister for women, youth, and children does not identify primarily with that role, but rather remains first and foremost a businesswoman. “She just wants to make money, and everyone knows there is a lot of money involved when you work for the government,” the associate said.

“Women in the Solomon Islands need someone who worked towards that position with plans to create a better place for women in this country, not someone who happens to have just ended up there after deciding to join politics.”

The monthly salary for an MP in the Solomon Islands is around SB$15,300, approximately 16 times the national average. There is also the controversial terminal grant MPs receive when leaving government, which stands at SB$400,000. Tuki herself highlighted that many politicians only join politics to make money.

In recent years, the Solomon Islands has cracked down on corruption, arresting several high-ranking politicians, while others have lost their seats after being accused of trying to buy votes. Tuki lost her seat in October of last year when the high court ruled that she’d attempted to buy votes during the 2014 election.

A colleague of Tuki’s, while dismissing this and claims made by others, was quick to highlight her achievements.

“During her first term as minister for women, youth, and children she successfully implemented the nation’s first law classing domestic violence as a crime. It starts with that law. Nothing else could’ve changed without it,” the colleague said.

In the Solomon Islands, two out of three women report having been physically or sexually abused in the past 12 months and one-third of women say their first sexual experience was forced. Tuki’s colleague notes that there is limited support from the male population on these issues. “I have not seen many men marching on domestic violence days or women’s’ rights days,” she said. “I am still trying to understand why men don’t come out to march alongside women.”

The only safe house for victims of gender-based violence in the country is in a secret location just outside of Honiara. The Christian Care Center, which was set up in 2002, is funded mostly by the Melanesian Church and partly by the government. One of the six sisters running the center, Sister Phyllis, said they need more support.

“Sometimes we have five women arriving in one day,” she said. “We are the only center in the Solomon Islands dealing with one of the biggest issues in the Solomon Islands.” Due to the repetitive nature of domestic violence, the shelter’s scarce resources are tapped out regularly, Sister Phyllis explained. “It’s a cycle of violence; many of them come back again and again. Some women have been here six times already.”

She believes the inaction of some politicians is allowing the issue of gender-based-violence to worsen. As for Lanelle Tanangada and Freda Tuki being re-elected, Sister Phyllis is hopeful they’ll give more attention to women, but she isn’t optimistic.

“I don’t know if they are knowledgeable on these issues. I haven’t seen or heard them advocate for women or do anything to encourage women…They should be working with women, listening to women, building a relationship with women. If you don’t relate to ordinary women, you can’t speak for them,” she said.

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Tuki said one of the biggest issues in addressing violence against women is that women don’t report the crimes against them, making it harder for the courts to build a case. Leo of the New Zealand High Commission agrees with Tuki, but also believes there is a lack of training given to police in identifying and responding to abuse against women.

Jackson Tasa of World Vision said of the few cases police do follow up on, they often fall short of serious conviction.

“It is common for a man to be charged with a crime as serious as rape, yet only be sentenced to two or three years in prison,” he said. “If they’ve been convicted of the crime than they should be charged in accordance with the law, which would mean life in prison.”

Police officer Henry Lamani, the head of investigations in Malaita province, said he trains his own officers on how to respond to these kinds of cases.

“Officers need better training,” he said. “The new officers are sent here from Honiara, but they are officers on probation, which makes it very, very hard… I am trying my best to teach the boys when we go out, but I am only one person.”

Lamani said in addition to better training, they also need more officers simply to cover such a large area.

“We only have two officers to patrol across three constituencies. If an officer is in West Are’are and gets a call from East Are’are he will not be able to make it there. This makes it very difficult in knowing exactly what is going on here.”

For this reason, Lamani believes the rate of gender-based-violence in South Malaita could be much worse than the reported national average of 63 percent.

In many of the provinces it is likely women will report abuse to community or church leaders instead of police. This is not necessarily due to the lack of police presence, but rather because of tradition.

“They pay a bride price for her, so they feel like they own her, and so they just use her,” said John Idui, a community leader.

Idui said it is his duty to teach men how to respect women.

“If there is violence, I will go and sort it out. Perhaps some of the other boys in the community will come with me… We don’t call the police though. We just work it out in the community. It is a family matter,” he said.

Idui admits that despite his interventions, the violence often continues. He also added that most people won’t talk about the violence because they’re ashamed.

“This has been going on for a very long time. It is hard for some people to stop doing it, even though they know it is wrong,” he said.

In another community, the church leader claimed they’d never had a single case of gender-based violence. However, a doctor at the closest health clinic confirmed that police were currently investigating an alleged rape in that community.

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Back in Honiara, Tanangada, who in addition to being an MP is also the minister for police, declined to comment on the effectiveness of police in addressing gender-based violence, among other issues.

Meanwhile, Tuki remains optimistic about the work her ministry is doing and highlighted their plan to open a private school in Honiara for girls who cannot continue with secondary school. This follows a recent report by Plan International, which revealed that just 7 percent of girls in the Solomon Islands graduate from secondary school.

Leo admits getting women into parliament seems like a long-shot, given that women aren’t treated fairly in society at large.

“There are so many issues that affect women here, but I believe when we give women opportunities, and build them up, you not only build women up, but you build the nation up,” she said.

“To begin with, we need the government to be more involved, not just the Ministry of Women, but also our leaders, both in government and in the church,” Leo said. “… If we had just one member of parliament stand up and say it’s wrong for men to beat their wives and also a priest to stand up and say it’s wrong in the eyes of god, it will go a long way. People in the Solomon Islands listen to their leaders, so we need male and female champions in the government and in the church. That’s the kind of support we really need.”

Joshus Mcdonald is an Australian photographer and journalist.