Progressing Women’s Empowerment in Tuvalu

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SEATTLE — Tuvalu is a country made up of five small islands in the continent of Oceania, northeast of Australia. With a population of only 11,200 people and encompassing an area of 26 square kilometers, Tuvalu has no political parties, just a Parliament comprised of 15 members elected every four years and a prime minister chosen by the members of Parliament. While the law in Tuvalu recognizes equality between men and women, in reality, women experience imbalances that present challenges in the political, educational and employment sectors. In addition, violence against women is a serious issue that requires attention. However, various organizations working alongside the local people are greatly enhancing women’s empowerment in Tuvalu.

Gender Imbalances in the Political Sphere

Research commissioned by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat found that the majority of the citizens support the participation of women in political decision-making positions. Yet, women in Tuvalu are greatly underrepresented in government. There are 15 members of Parliament, with one or two members elected from each island. Although the country is 51 percent female, there has been little female representation in terms of important political decision-making processes. In the September 2010 election, not one woman was elected to Parliament.

The imbalance of women in the political sphere is in part a reflection of the few decision-making roles for women in the home. Traditionally, men were considered to be the main decision-makers, with women being confined to the home to take care of the children.

However, women’s empowerment in Tuvalu regarding the political sphere is improving. With the implementation of the Falekaupule Act in 1997, and alongside various governmental changes, women are more actively involved in local elections and participate in decision-making processes in assemblies and committees. In addition, there is an increase in the number of women occupying higher positions in various levels of government.

Educational and Scholarship Imbalances

In Tuvalu, education is free and mandatory from the ages of to 13, but there are some apparent gender imbalances. From 1991 until 2001, 78 percent of the scholarships for tertiary-level education were awarded to men, with only 32 percent awarded to women. In addition, there is a clear divide in course selection, as female students mostly study subjects such as nursing or education, while male students are encouraged to pursue science or technology. In addition, pregnant women are largely dismissed at school and are discouraged from pursuing an education at all.

Employment Imbalances

Educational factors directly contribute to women’s participation in the labor force. It is not a surprise that men make up the majority of those employed in the administrative, managerial and primary production sectors. Women, on the other hand, constitute a majority of those employed in sales and clerical related jobs. In fact, an astounding 78 percent of labor in the informal sector is done by women.

Violence Against Women

Violence against women in Tuvalu is not uncommon, as 37 percent of women have reported experiencing physical violence in their lifetime, and 21 percent have experienced sexual violence. Ninety percent of these women reported that their current partner or husband has exhibited violent behavior towards them. In addition, around 70 percent of women and 73 percent of men believe that it is justified for a husband to beat his wife in certain circumstances.

Actors Increasing Women’s Empowerment in Tuvalu

Several actors have been working towards improving women’s empowerment in Tuvalu. United Nations Women is promoting political participation of women through the Advancing Gender Justice in the Pacific Programme, strengthening legislation and services for women who are victims of violence through the Ending Violence Against Women Programme, supporting research on gender and economic issues through the Women’s Economic Empowerment Programme, and strengthening knowledge of gendered imbalances of climate change through the Climate Change and Natural Hazards Programme.

The coordinator for the Tuvaluan National Council for Women (TNCW), Pulafangu Toafa, is an important advocate for women’s empowerment in Tuvalu. TNCW works to empower women by promoting women’s participation in decision-making capacities. The council helps women access funds for various projects and businesses and holds programs and workshops to bring awareness to women’s rights. Toafa also helps run a program aimed at addressing domestic violence against women and says her doors are always open to anyone needing help or support.

On a national scale, the country itself has made commitments to enhancing women’s empowerment by committing to the Beijing Platform for Action for the Advancement of Women in 1995 and ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1999.

It is evident that although there are still many improvements that can be made in terms of gender equality, there is an acknowledgment of the importance of women’s empowerment in Tuvalu, and significant action has been taken to progress in this regard.

– Miho Kitamura

Photo: Flickr

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