Women and Constitution Building in the Pacific

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Women and Constitution Building in the Pacific: Workshop at the inaugural Pacific Feminist Forum

Considerable and diverse constitution building processes are currently underway across the Pacific region. Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are currently engaged in constitution making. Fiji and Tonga are in the process of implementing new constitutions or substantive constitutional amendments. Bougainville and New Caledonia are preparing for significant referendums that could change the constitutional arrangements of those polities.

Women and women’s organisations make a critical contribution to constitution building processes.Women have first-hand knowledge of how past and existing institutions operate and ways in which a new constitution can address the needs of women. Examples of constitutional proposals initiated and supported by women’s movements in the region include temporary special measures to increase the participation of women in politics and the inclusion of sex, gender and increasingly sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds in non-discrimination provisions. Women and women’s organisations in the Pacific also play a key role in implementing constitutions: they are educators, advocates and practitioners, and work with local communities, churches, customary institutions and government to raise awareness and build institutions that understand and respond to the needs of women.

There are a range of ways in which women in the Pacific are involved in constitution building processes. Women may be representatives on constitutional conventions or in parliaments that consider and make constitutional amendments. Women’s organisations in the region make submissions, provide advice and encourage women in communities to participate in public consultations. In the implementation stage, women’s organisations have a critical role in ensuring that the constitution is implemented in a gender-responsive way, working across government and civil society.

The involvement of women in constitution building in the Pacific was discussed at a session of the inaugural Pacific Feminist Forum, held in Suva Fiji on 28-30 November 2016. The Forum brought together women’s rights defenders, feminists, activists and women from diverse backgrounds from across the Pacific for 3 days of collaboration, reflection and discussion around the theme ‘Mapping Journeys and Building Movements’.

The session on Women and Constitution Building in the Pacific was convened and chaired by Anna Dziedzic from the Constitution Transformation Network. Three panellists, from women’s organisations in three Pacific countries in spoke about their experiences when engaging in constitution building. Kathryn Relang, Executive Director of Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI) shared the perspectives of women who are standing for election to the Marshall Islands Constitutional Convention, which will be held in 2017 and provided some insights into the significance of the range of issues for consideration by the Convention for RMI women.   Donna Makini, Policy and Research Officer at the Women’s Rights Action Movement (WRAM) in the Solomon Islands reflected on how WRAM came to be involved in the constitution making process and identified a range of points of engagement for women in the Solomon Islands.   Tara Chetty, former Executive Director of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement (FWRM) focused on the implementation phase of constitution building, including the opportunities and challenges that civil society organisations face in maintaining momentum and working together to engage with government and the community to implement the new constitutional provisions in a gender-responsive way.

The open discussion during the session explored how women and women’s organisations can take advantage of the opportunities provided by constitution-making to further women’s rights and the challenges that women in the region face in terms of participation and influence in the process. Participants also talked about ways to meet these challenges, including strategies for communication, working with other organisations, and mobilising women in local communities to participate in constitution making processes.

Pacific women have made enormous contributions to constitution building and the Pacific Feminist Forum provided the space and the opportunity for timely reflection, shared learning and further building networks for support and advice for women across the region.