Real Women, Real Stories: Women in Solomon Islands making a difference
Raising the voices of Solomon Islands women
Ethel Sigimanu at the Honiara Central Market. Photo: Lou Anderson / Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
The voices of women in Solomon Islands are being heard.
In 2007, 10 years after it was abolished during the 'tensions', the Ministry of Women, Youth and Children’s Affairs was reformed. Ethel Sigimanu took up the post of Permanent Secretary to champion women’s rights across the country.
Ethel says one of the biggest challenges in gender equality is getting the right mix of policy and action to bring about positive change.
'We are dealing with complex and very entrenched views and attitudes, so while we are making progress, it will take time and a strong commitment,' she said.
The ministry sets policy, works with non-government organisations and develops partnerships with donors. It also champions national leadership, especially on key issues such as violence against women and the low participation of women in decision-making roles.
'Violence against women and the impacts and consequences are the biggest challenges in Solomon Islands – it destroys families, it is costly and it impacts on women’s ability to contribute to their community. We need to work on changing the culture of violence in the community. Men are generally the perpetrators of violence, so they need to be part of the solution,' Ethel said.
She also believes strong political leadership plays a defining role in how quickly countries embrace change.
'Change is not about a lone woman in parliament,' she said. 'Change is about having a critical mass of women who by nature of being females, can bring different ideas, experiences and values to decision-making.'
Ethel said the appointment of Solomon Islands to the board of UN Women places the country in a unique position.
'Together with Australia, it gives the women of the Pacific a very strong voice – not only to participate in international dialogue to promote women’s rights, but to bring a regional perspective, which I hope can be a real platform for action in Solomon Islands and the region.'
Working for change, from the bottom up
Beverly Komasi is making a difference in the lives of young Solomon Islanders. Photo: Erin Gleeson / Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI)
In a dusty school yard on the outskirts of Honiara, teacher and Principal Beverly Komasi is building the next generation of Solomon Islands leaders.
Shocked to see local children spending their days scavenging and playing in a local rubbish dump, Beverly set up the Mercy School in 2004. Her goal was to give children in Honiara’s Burns Creek squatter settlement a better start to life.
Eight years later, the lives of hundreds of children have been radically changed, and the community transformed.
'It's a big difference. The community all come together as one now. They are all happy and they feel loved and a sense of belonging,' Mrs Komasi explains.
'The kids are so happy and they know something good is happening here. People are changing.'
What started as an open air classroom under a mango tree is now a thriving school with more than 600 students, six classes and eight teachers. Beverly has expert teachers visiting from all over the world and has enjoyed support from donors including the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.
As well as improving children’s opportunities, Mrs Komasi is also proving that women leaders can influence change at all levels, one school and one community at a time.
Beverly's passion for the benefits education can bring the Solomon Islands is evident.
'Everybody is born a leader and we are all children of Solomon Islands. I wanted to stop complaining and blaming the leaders at the top and get up and do something good by building this school.'
'I want to raise good leaders for Solomon Islands. That is my way of contributing to building my nation.'
Women in business – the road to success
Julie Haro is dedicated to providing women in Solomon Islands with economic opportunities. Photo: Lou Anderson / Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
As president of the Solomon Islands Women in Business Association, Julie Haro is working to increase women’s leadership and economic empowerment in Solomon Islands.
'Women play such a large role in our community, but this is taken for granted and goes unrecognised,' she said.
'We need better representation and women in decision-making positions so they can influence and advocate for all women. It's a change that needs to be at all levels—in politics, business and across the community.'
The Solomon Islands Women in Business Association is helping to promote and develop women's participation in economic activities in Solomon Islands.
Julie says that women need to be empowered economically as 'they are often the ones making the money in a family but lack the decision-making power about how to spend that money'.
For the 39-year-old mother of three, the issues she now champions are similar to the ones she overcame when setting up her own business in 2009. After starting in real estate, Julie has expanded her business and now employs 12 staff across four different companies.
'One of the biggest challenges is managing a growing business, a young family and supporting my community work. I am lucky I have a strong team who back me up,' she said.
'This is a challenge for women all over Solomon Islands. The cultural context is hard because as a wife and a mother, you are expected to stay at home. It’s not a level playing field and to see meaningful changes to women’s equality, the country needs to work together, in partnership with men, to shift our thinking.
'I believe this country will be the most beautiful country in the world if both men and women have ownership of it by working together hand-in-hand in all spheres of life.'
Emma Garo makes a stand for women
Emma Garo, Acting Deputy Chief Magistrate in Solomon Islands, mother of four children under 10 and aspiring high court judge. Photo: Lou Anderson / Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Emma Garo has her sights set on becoming the first Solomon Islands woman to be appointed to the High Court.
In the 12 years since finishing her studies, she has quickly risen through the ranks, working as a public defender and senior legal officer at the Public Solicitors Office, a Principal Magistrate, and now acting Deputy Chief Magistrate for Solomon Islands Magistrate’s Court.
Few would doubt her ability to reach the top job, which is only matched by her passion to help Solomon Islands women. Emma’s role in the judicial system means she sees firsthand the devastation caused by domestic violence in Solomon Islands, and the impact on families across the country.
'It is very hard listening to stories and not to be affected, but my role is to hear both sides of a case,' Emma said. 'I think the issues with domestic violence are not just about a fair judicial system. Women also need to unite to protect each other. We need our mothers and sisters to make a stand.'
Emma believes there are many barriers to the women of Solomon Islands achieving equality. Though the biggest challenge confronting survivors of violence, she says, is access to services, to police, and to help.
'Around 80 per cent of people live in rural and isolated areas. Some locations are a four-hour boat trip across a dangerous ocean. If a woman is a victim of domestic violence, how is she going to get help?' she asked.
Emma said the chiefs are important protectors for their communities who need to show courage and leadership to protect their wives, daughters, sisters and aunts.
'We can also have all the right legislation in place but we need to translate the right messages to all members of the community. The media has an important role to inform men and women alike, to educate and to influence change,' she said.
These women are the drivers of change for gender equality in Solomon Islands. Over the next 10 years, Australia will support leadership, economic and social opportunities for women across the Pacific region through the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative.