Women are taking on stronger and more senior jobs within the Solomon Islands prison service - including working in the men's area of the prison for the first time - with the help of a Women's Network to promote career paths for female officers.

The Correctional Service Solomon Islands (CSSI) Women's Network launched its new Action Plan this week at Rove Police Club. The plan aims to remove the barriers that have traditionally held women back from working at the same level as male prison officers. It focuses on promoting equal access to career development opportunities, such as making sure female officers have the same access as their male colleagues to training opportunities, and that women are given the opportunity to act in higher roles.

It also looks at providing better support to female officers, many of whom have families, with initiatives to create a more family friendly workplace, including more flexible working hours for women with family responsibilities, and finding cheaper transport options for women supporting families.

The Chairlady of the Women's Network, Phylistus Fafoi, said the new Action Plan was created to "raise women up" in the workplace, including moving them into senior positions. "Most women think they are nothing but women, and they are there to support men, not to match the men," she said.

"This Network and Action Plan are about raising women's confidence. Often women don't raise their voices, so we want them to feel more confident to talk about things that are on their mind."

Ms Fafoi, a Senior Sergeant who has more than 20 years experience with the Correctional Service, said women were already playing a key role in working with young prisoners.

"We have many young people who come into prison and they need anger management, and it works very well when the female officers are here," she said. "The young prisoners tend to think of the female officers like mothers and sisters - they feel safe with them, and when the women talk to them they accept what they say, and really do try to make changes."

There are currently 40 female Correctional Service officers working across the Solomon Islands, four of whom are now working in the men's accommodation areas at the Central Prison. Under the old legislation, women were prohibited from working in the men's areas of prisons, but Deputy Commissioner Francis Haisoma saw that women had a positive role to play is assisting with the rehabilitation of male prisoners, and that they were being disadvantaged in their employment opportunities by the existing legislation. He played a key role in developing the new Correctional Services Act to ensure that it removed the barriers to women working across all areas of the Service, and gave them access to the same opportunities as men.

The Commissioner of the Correctional Service, Barry Apsey, says the new Act puts women on the same level of men in the prison service for the first time ever.

"The old Act actively discriminated against women, because it prevented them getting the experience to work on the ground supervising male prisoners, and that then stopped them from being able to argue, which it came to interviews for a job promotion, that they had done the full range of duties," he said.

The combined strength of the new laws and the new Action Plan are a major step toward modernizing the Correctional Service, and promoting female prison officers.

The Action Plan was approved in April by the CSSI Executive, which has encouraged female officers to speak up about their needs, such as more on-the-job training and better support for women with families.

Commissioner Apsey said the Executive would work actively with women in the prison service to help them achieve their professional goals. Deputy Commissioner Konga also encouraged the women to take a stronger role and to bring forward issues and ideas to the Executive.

"The Executive is going to monitor the strategies created by the Women's Network, and use them as an instrument to check progress on those goals," he said.

"We will be inviting women from the Network to our Executive meetings in future to make sure that we are delivering on the things we've committed the Executive to."

Commissioner Apsey said the Executive would encourage women to push forward issues of concern and to be "a force of communication".

"There is lots of internal pressure within CSSI to make sure women are given equal opportunities, so the women of the Correctional Service need to be coming to the Executive and banging on the door, and saying that they want to know what's being done to further their Action Plan."

Commissioner Apsey said the long-term goal of the Correctional Service was to make prisons more open to the community, and to help rehabilitate prisoners by bringing them closer to the experiences happening every day in community and village life. He said male prisoners had responded very well to female officers working in their areas, and he expected things to just keep getting better.