In previous posts from the ‘Pacific Corner Series’, different vulnerabilities from this region have been explored, such as increasing urbanisation, climate change-induced relocation, and waste management. In this regard, social protection initiatives have been crucial in limiting the risks of vulnerable people. This article focuses on a particularly vulnerable group in the Pacific region: women.
Despite the recent progress made in the region related to the implementation of formal social protection systems, these systems often involve barriers to access and enjoyment, such as formal employment or control of household assets and decision-making - which preclude women from obtaining benefits.
Moreover, the Pacific is home to indigenous cultures with established practices, which promote community-based activities related to social protection – these systems function informally, as opposed to formal state programmes. “Traditional forms of social protection in Pacific societies are anchored in indigenous knowledge systems, kinship ties, exchange relationships in the gift economy and a strong sense of belonging through attachments to land and language” (Jolly, et al., 2015, p. 7).
With these challenges in mind, gender equality initiatives in the region have been focusing on empowering women by improving their mobility, safety and access to credit.
Women and social protection in the Pacific
Countries in the Pacific region differ quite remarkably in culture, environment, and social context. Nevertheless, women from the Pacific region face a common challenge: they are often portrayed through a lens of 'vulnerable victimhood', viewed as disempowered parties, facing intractable gender inequality and gender violence (Jolly, et al., 2015).
This lens of ‘vulnerable victimhood’, which has roots in both indigenous cultures and colonialism, impose limits to women’s access to social protection by ignoring their agency as hardworking, creative, resourceful and resilient citizens. Therefore, social protection systems in the region need to acknowledge the pervasive structures and processes of inequality that constrain their possibilities, without reinscribing prevailing gender inequalities (Jolly, et al., 2015).
Successful women empowerment initiatives in the Pacific
Papua New Guinea and the ‘market safety’ programme
Women in Papua New Guinea (PNG) experience dangerous levels of gendered violence, low educational opportunities, limited access to the labour market, life-threatening maternal and child healthcare, and restrictions on access to landownership and other resources. PNG is a country with deeply gendered social and cultural structures, meaning opportunities for women take a back seat to that of their male counterparts (Filer et al. 2013). Therefore, social protection schemes in PNG must advocate more strongly for a “gender-equitable, inclusive and efficient distribution of the windfall incomes derived from extractive industries” (Jolly, et al., 2015, p. 9).
The capital city of Port Moresby, as part of the UN Women “Safe Cities Free of Violence against Women and Girls Global Programme”, has taken steps to improve women’s safety in local markets, as they comprise 80% of the vendors in the city. Approximately 55% of the female vendors had experienced some kind of violence in the markets within the past year. The women had experienced everything from “sexual harassment, rape, robbery, intimidation, stalking and extortion” (Jolly, et al., 2015).
UN Women and their collaborators implemented regulations at the markets to increase women’s safety, such as a partnership with the National Capital District Commission (NCDC) in PNG and financial institutions to make it possible for the vendors to pay the market fees through mobile phones, rather than cash, effectively reducing opportunists in extorting the women, as well as social and physical improvements to the infrastructure at the markets to create a safer environment for all.
In PNG, traditional social protection programmes are in place, in particular, to help women and children, however cash transfers programmes have not significantly increased the well-being of women nor children, due to the traditional dominating male gender “roles” in PNG, and given the propensity for the oldest man in the family to have the final control of any cash flow and income in the household. Moreover, the income of the female vendors was found to be more secure than what is obtainable through a formal cash transfer social protection programme, where their male counterparts have the legal rights to the benefits they receive.
Therefore, the “Safe Cities Free of Violence against Women and Girls Global Programme” changes some traditional dynamics in the PNG households, by giving the opportunity to women to receive their own income from their businesses and to provide for themselves and their children, rather than relying on the traditional cash transfer programmes, in which case, the men have the authority to control.
Vanuatu and ‘micro-business loans’
In Vanuatu, traditionally, land is a vital source of people’s livelihood. Moreover, a higher number of Vanuatu women tend to rely on their own-food production compared to men (both for their livelihood and sustenance) (Jolly, et al., 2015). However, women’s legal rights to land and the resources land provides are strongly dependent on their male relatives.
Much like the case of PNG, women in Vanuatu do not have the legal means to decrease their dependency on men, which increases their vulnerability, and jeopardises the implementation of traditional social protection schemes, particularly cash transfers. To address this problem, a micro-finance scheme for women was established in 1996, and developed through a partnership between the Vanuatu Government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP): The Vanuatu Women Development Scheme (VANWODS).
In 2001, VANWODS became a non-governmental organisation (NGO). Since then, it has developed into a sustainable programme reaching over 5,000 members in different cities in the country (Jolly, et al., 2015). The purpose of VANWODS was to help women’s micro-businesses to access credit loans in a large range of sectors, such as handicrafts, market stalls, and retail stores. It also aided the women in advocating for various challenges they face (Jolly, et al., 2015).
In both cases, the social protection schemes from Vanuatu and PNG have intended to create opportunities for women to provide for their family and themselves, and become more independent from male relatives and masculinist structures.
Ensuring women’s access to social protection
To ensure women in the Pacific do not ‘fall through the net’ of social protection, “social policies need rather to relate to the pre-existing embodied practices of gender in order to redirect them towards greater gender equality” (Jolly, et al., 2015, p. 44).
Initiatives, which include the participation of NGOs, churches and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), like the UN, are therefore well placed in supporting women in accessing equal benefits in the Pacific. Likewise, as the case in PNG highlights, ensuring women can thrive by generating independent income in informal markets can significantly change the often portrayed perceptions of them as ‘vulnerable victims’, since these initiatives emphasise strategies for creative survival and women’s empowered agency in the process of securing social protection.
In the Pacific, in order for women to enjoy full access to the formal social protection systems in place, which cater to education and the labour market, social policies must consider and tackle embedded social and cultural norms that limit women’s access to such protection.
By enhancing their independent livelihood potential and recognising the gendered lens that places restrictions on their access to assets, women of the Pacific can be empowered and elevated within their society as equally entitled citizens.
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Hedditch, S. and Manuel, C. (2010). Papua New Guinea: Gender and Investment Climate Reform Assessment, International Finance Corporation Advisory Services in East Asia and the Pacific in Partnership with Australian AID. Washington, DC: International Finance Corporation, World Bank. Accessible: https://socialprotection.org/discover/publications/papua-new-guinea-gender-and-investment-climate-reform-assessment
Jolly, M. et al. (2015). Falling Through the Net? Gender and Social Protection in the Pacific, Discussion Paper, UN Women. Accessible: https://socialprotection.org/discover/publications/falling-through-net-gender-and-social-protection-pacific-0
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