By Hon Dr Sharman Stone, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls
I am just back from the Solomon Islands. What a privilege it was to be there at this significant time, as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) comes to a close – after 14 years – and reflects on the peace that continues.
I was struck by the beauty of the country and the determination of its people. Some of my ancestors sailed from Scotland to be missionaries in the Pacific, and I can see why they thought they had arrived in the Garden of Eden.
This is a country making great strides, however many challenges remain. Australian aid and support offered in a partnership is tackling these challenges especially in efforts to improve the infrastructure, the machinery of government, further training of the police and empowering women.
RAMSI has been an outstanding success in restoring and maintaining security in the Solomon Islands. And now, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force is ready to take its place as the single police force in the country. I think RAMSI will be held up as a model for achieving lasting peace in future engagements world wide.
I congratulate the police force for choosing fifty per cent of women in their latest recruitment. Women are playing an increasingly frontline role building confidence and trust in the communities they serve.
I was pleased to meet Deputy Police Commissioner Juanita Matanga, who made history in 2014 by becoming the first woman promoted to be second in charge. It is so important that women also take leadership roles in the police force.
While RAMSI is winding up, Australia’s commitment to our near neighbour and friend remains strong. Key challenges remain in Solomon Islands as elsewhere, that require partnering in training, some innovative solutions, and some extra finances.
As Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls you would expect me to single out the needs of women and girls. But the fact is, that as half of the population, unless women take their rightful place – shoulder to shoulder with men – as leaders and as participants in the formal economy, they will continue to experience some of the highest rates of violence in their homes, and their children will not be safe.
I was so impressed with the community action to stop family violence in Lilisiana Village, where the men and women drive a strategy that now sees families more safe, children able to attend school, and families and a community that live more happily. It was great to see the funding Australia had made available with Oxfam and a coalition of other organisations achieving such an outcome – again, a model for success.
In late 2014, the Solomon Islands Parliament made an historic decision to pass the Family Protection Act. This legislation makes an unequivocal statement that domestic violence is totally unacceptable, it is a human rights abuse, and it is also a crime. Solomon Islands now faces the same challenges we face in Australia where we have the legislation in place but we must work hard across the community to change behaviour. It is never acceptable to claim that beating and abusing women is a cultural tradition and so it can’t be changed. Culture changes constantly, and if wife abuse was ever accepted practice, it clearly cannot be tolerated now, not in Australia, the Solomons, or anywhere else.
At the Australian-supported crisis and referral centre, Seif Ples I met inspiring women working as first responders to victims of family violence. They are running public phone hotlines, delivering medical services and providing much-needed emergency accommodation for survivors of this violence. They work in deeply challenging circumstances and I applaud their humanity and achievements.
The Australian supported Let’s Make Our Families Safe program in Malaita, is also having a real impact on lives, and I have already mentioned how impressive progress is in the village of Lilisiana.
In the town of Auki I enjoyed the sweetest pineapples I have ever tasted, and saw the superbly presented fresh fruit, vegetables and fish in the market, now managed by a very able committee led by women. We are supporting courses in marketing and small business, and the dedication of the women improving their food and craft based enterprises was easy to see. (I just wish we could buy those pineapples back home.)
While there is no shortage of capable women seeking positions of leadership in the Solomons, currently only one woman sits in the National Parliament. The Hon Freda Tuki Soriacomua is the Minister for Women, Youth and Children’s Affairs and is a business woman as well as an MP, but she is a lone woman’s voice. Even so, in the week of my visit Cabinet endorsed and announced the Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan, a revised policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Development and the revised policy on Eliminating Violence Against Women and Girls. This is a great achievement.
I was so moved by the stories of previous unsuccessful women political candidates who faced the same barriers as all men and women do, but who, being women, found it extra hard to find the funds to pay for the travel and other costs of running campaigns. Women typically have fewer resources and perhaps young family to consider too. I commend these women and those to follow who will continue to put themselves forward so as to take their place at the policy-making table. As a parliamentarian myself for 20 years, I urge them never to give up. Winning is worth it.
I hope to return to the Solomons often. It is a place of real challenges but also real hope and a community wide commitment to a better future. Out future is always in the hands of our next generation. The impressive young men and women I met at the Solomon Warriors Football Club and at the Auki boarding school left me in no doubt that the Solomons has a next generation ready to meet all challenges.