• (File: Getty)
Fiji has appointed a woman as Speaker of its House of Representatives.  
By
Phillippa Carisbrooke

Source:
9 Oct 2014 - 6:56 PM  UPDATED 10 Oct 2014 - 3:04 PM

Fiji has just appointed a woman as Speaker of its House of Representatives.

It's not the first Pacific country to have a female Speaker: that milestone was achieved by the Cook Islands back in the 1960s.

But for those who've been working to empower women in Fiji, it's an exciting development.

But they say it's just the start.

A record eight women were elected to Fiji's 50-member parliament last month.

Sixteen per cent of its parliamentarians are now women - that compares to a Pacific average of 13 per cent.

In addition to having its first female Speaker of the House, a woman has also been appointed Minister for Social Welfare.

The Executive Director of Australia's International Women's Development Agency, Joanna Hayter, says Fiji is showing other nations in the Pacific what can be achieved when there's a concerted effort to support women wishing to enter politics.

"Fiji at this point across the region is really demonstrating the leadership in terms of what is possible, and the kinds of work we need to do to see these changes in representation."

The Fiji Women's Rights Movement has been promoting democracy in Fiji for 25-years.

Program director Tara Chetty says in the eight years since Fiji's previous democratic election there's been a small but positive shift in perception about the role of women.

And she says a joint effort by women's groups to advocate for female leadership has translated into people voting for women.

In 2012 women's groups got together to form Fiji Women's Forum, offering female candidates training.

The Fiji Women's Rights Movement got on board.

Ms Chetty says it came at a critical time for candidates.

"It helped them plan their campaigns better. It helped them understand some of the challenges they were already going through or could expect to face. And it helped them feel solidarity with other women candidates who were experiencing other similar challenges."

Fiji Women's Forum would like to see women make up 50 per cent of parliament.

Ms Chetty says that would require special measures.

"To take the next step there is really no way without putting in place some measures. They don't have to necessarily be quotas, but they can be."

FemLink Pacific advocates for women.

Executive Director Sharon Rolls warns traditional views of women will remain a barrier to those wishing to fill leadership roles for some time.

"There have been a lot of hurdles, particularly outside of the urban communities where rural women really have to work a lot harder to organise and to be part of structures that have traditional perceptions that women should be there for support. And when you add the age dimension of young women that certainly should be seen but not heard."

The Executive Director of Australia's International Women's Development Agency, Joanna Hayter, says it takes "courage" and "extraordinary resilience" to become a female politician, in any country.

"Just look at the recent history in Australia and the groundbreaking but terrifying sort of persecution that we witnessed for our first female Prime Minister in Australia. These are architectures and structures that are deeply masculine. That have a sense of club and culture that has excluded women through history. You have to take a very deep breath before you say "I want to be a politician."