Small states must reform archaic and discriminatory legislation and offer more practical help for young women to become involved in politics if the Commonwealth is to reach its target of 30 per cent representation of women in national parliaments.
The call for a renewed effort on behalf of women came during an energetic debate between more than 30 parliamentarians who have come to London from some of the Commonwealth’s smallest jurisdictions.
The MPs, from vast and wild territories such as the Yukon and Australia’s north, and tiny or remote islands like St Helena in the South Atlantic and Prince Edward Island in Canada, all represent constituencies of 5,000 or less citizens and were able to spend the weekend sharing experiences and ideas.
The MPs and speakers will join their colleagues from bigger nations in the historic Westminster Hall for the official opening of the 57th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference by HRH The Princess Royal on Monday.
Hon. Robin Adams JP MLA, Speaker of the Norfolk Island Parliament in Australia – which represents just 1,800 citizens, said the CPA conferences are the only time that small jurisdictions could not only discuss common problems but seek advice from their larger parliamentary counterparts.
According to Hon. Keith Flax MHA, Deputy Speaker of the British Virgin Islands' lower house and a discussion leader for the session – ‘Women as Agents of Change’ – all political parties must work actively to encourage women to participate and join in their platforms and become actively engaged in campaigns.
“There is a need for more voter education for young women who may have intention to become political activists, [as] there is very little and in some small states none at all,” he said.
“Political parties along with civil society should fund training workshops for women on how to prepare and run successful campaigns for general elections.”
Mr Flax joined several colleagues in a call for concerted questions and follow up with ministers and governments to ensure that those already in Parliament are held accountable and that projects and programs and laws promised to achieve gender equality and equity are in fact implemented.
Hon. Fiame Mata’afa MP, the Samoan Minister for Justice and a veteran MP with 26 years political experience, said that equality must start in the home and that it can only truly become part of everyday society if power sharing between men and women is recognized by all.
“It’s not just about recognizing and noting what women have achieved in the past, but concentrating on the investment in women in the future because that is where we can find the potential for participation,” she said.
“I think it is a fair reflection that as our societies and communities develop we can reach a better level of representation. In the more developed societies, power sharing takes place between the male and the female. There are also issues of custom and tradition and the perception about what is a man’s role and a women’s role. That is an evolution process. It all comes down to what is fair,” she said.
Ms Mata’afa said that investment in the education of women and girls is now starting to show dividends and that the time is ripe for decision makers to work harder to ensure that no barriers remain which might prevent women from achieving their potential.
The Tasmanian delegate, Hon. Kerry Finch MP, presented a paper to the conference which argued that local government was an important resource to develop for women: “In small communities like Tasmania the starting point for many political career and community activists in local government,” he said.
“An effort to increase female involvement at this level is likely to provide a pathway to fuller participation in civil society.”
However he also warned that the fight to harness equality for women might lead to a loss of focus on men’s needs: “If we have a department for women, why not one for men?” he asked.