Over 60 women representatives from the justice sectors who attended the two-day Women in Justice Forum in Honiara agree that there is a need to promote policies that eliminate gender disparities and stop gender stereotypes.
The Forum came at a very important juncture considering how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to widen existing inequalities and place additional pressure on women outside the home.
Convened by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through its Australian funded Access to Justice Project, the participants had the opportunity to hear from their peers about various support mechanisms, coping strategies and personal reflections that helped to break the proverbial glass ceiling.
Sharing how the Forum added value to her career aspirations, the Principal Legal Officer for the Solomon Islands Law Reform Commission, Corina Peni said, “This Forum has been particularly useful for me as a female lawyer, as I have learned from the experience of the presenters and gained advice on the potential, we women have in our chosen career paths.”
A Network of Women in the Justice Sector
The Vice-President of the Solomon Islands Bar Association (SIBA), Anika Kingmele, echoed the agreement of the participants for a network of women in the justice sector to advocate for the of building a respectful, inclusive, supportive workplace and promotion of women to leadership positions.
“A network of women within our sector ensures that we have a collective voice, which in turn supports us to work with our male colleagues to implement just policies that benefit everyone,” said Kingmele.
According to the International Finance Cooperation, research carried out in Solomon Islands and in other countries has found that forms of violence such as domestic and sexual violence, bullying, and sexual harassment impact significantly upon employees’ ability to remain safely and productively employed.
The Acting Australian High Commissioner, Sally-Anne Vincent, in her opening address highlighted how, “over the years, the Solomon Islands Government (SIG), through the Ministry of Public Service, has noted the decrease in number of women and the delayed prolonged career progression for women across the wider SIG public sector workforce.”
She added, “This is an area that requires sustained effort to not lose the gains made.”
Also speaking at the opening ceremony, the Permanent Secretary for Ministry of Police, National Security and Correctional Services, Karen Galokale said, “I want to encourage you to use this opportunity to share ideas and establish a network to strengthen our partnership. Please take this opportunity to look at ways our different organizations can coordinate and complement each other.”
Of the five key messages identified from the Forum, participants reaffirmed the need to establish a women’s network in the sector with support from development partners. This network will include the membership of the Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs and the Ministry of Police, National Security and Correctional Services.
Justice and Education Sector
Lessons from this initiative can also be applied across all other sectors. Building on this, the Minister for Education and Human Resources Development, Honourable Ms. Lanelle Olandrea Tanangada, views the opportunity as a way to build a bridge between the Justice and Education sectors.
“It is very important for women in the justice sector to take the time to work with the education sector through advocacy programmes with the schools, to speak with young girls and boys on the importance of promoting justice, peace and harmony in this nation.”
She added, “At the same time, it is important that from the education sector, we include this (gender and human rights issues) in the curriculum from as early as primary school so we see how men and women can work together to ensure we live in a peaceful and safe environment.”
According to the Solomon Islands National Statistics Office and reported by World Vision, 38 percent of women report their first sexual experience as having been forced. Further, 63 percent of men believe it is acceptable to hit women in certain circumstances and two of three women have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner.
Reflecting on the depiction of lady justice as the symbol of fair and equal administration of the law, without corruption, favour, greed, or prejudice, the Deputy Public Solicitor, Martha Manaka highlighted the irony of this longstanding association, given the data from the National Statistics Office.
“Addressing the shocking rates and acts of family and intimate partner violence in our country is a complex and multifaceted task, requiring innovative approaches across all levels and across all sectors,” said Manaka.
She added, “Forums such as this is a call to action. We all agree that we cannot stand by while so many women suffer harm that is completely avoidable. Or capable women that are overlooked in career progressions because of their gender!”
In 2017, an audit conducted by the Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs (MJLA) (with assistance from the Solomon Islands Justice Programme) found that women made up 48 percent of people employed in the ministry and portfolio agencies. However, the gender balance across agencies varied and the percentage of women promoted to managerial and leadership positions dropped to 41 percent.
Similarly for our Courts, while women hold 48% of the positions in the National Judiciary, women’s representation is concentrated in lower-level positions, with representation in managerial and leadership positions (L8 to SS3) dropping significantly to just 21 percent.
More generally, official figures published by the Ministry of Women, Youth, Children and Family Affairs (MWYCFA) indicate only 5 percent of senior public servants and 22 percent of mid-level positions were held by women, which highlights the considerable work that needs to be done to address gender equity across the sector.
“Building trust in our justice system should also mean a body that is reflective of our communities, as women are further disadvantaged due to their lack of physical, financial, and technical access (due to social and cultural norms and barriers), thus resulting in a lack of gender sensitivity at all levels which is then reinforced by male centric training programmes,” said Permanent Secretary, MJLA, Dr Paul Mae.
He added, “against this backdrop, closing the gender gap makes sense and is the moral thing to do.”
Echoing these sentiments, the UNDP Solomon Islands Country Manager, Berdi Berdiyev said, “advancing women in leadership ranks across the justice sector is imperative to ensure that all perspectives are considered in the effective administration of justice for users of the justice system, the people of Solomon Islands.”
He added, “This Forum, on the back of national, regional and global commitments, not only provides the opportunity for capacity building but also provides a platform to share the challenges and potential solutions to support future female leaders in assuming leadership and decision-making positions’’.
Participants of the Women in Justice Forum included representatives from the Public Solicitor’s Office, MJLA, Office of the Director for Public Prosecutions, Solomon Islands Bar Association, Solomon Islands Law Reform Commission, Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, Correctional Services of Solomon Islands, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Public Service, the private sector, Australia Pacific Training Coalition (APTC), the University of the South Pacific and development partners.
At the conclusion of the Forum, participants agreed to five overarching messages and agreements to inform their way forward based on empowerment, networking, mentoring, capacity building and research.
The Forum was held in the capital Honiara on Monday 8 and Tuesday 9 of November 2021.
As a fundamental human right and a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world, gender equality is central to UNDP’s support towards implementation and achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Encouraging women to take leadership roles is an integral part of SDG 5 with target 5.5 aiming to ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunity for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life.
All women need to be able to turn to fair, effective institutions to access justice and essential services. Without these, instability and injustice spread, and discrimination is perpetuated.
The Forum was convened by the UNDP Solomon Islands Access to Justice Project, which is implemented in partnership with MJLA through the Public Solicitor’s Office and supported by the Australian Government.