Friday, March 8, 2019
Ms. Poto Williams MP, the chair of New Zealand Parliamentarians’ Group on Population and Development (NZPPD), recently accompanied Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters along with other members of Parliament, on a trip to the Pacific. To acknowledge International Women’s Day in New Zealand and around the world, we share with you Ms. Williams’ insights from talking to women and girls from Tuvalu and Kiribati.
Did you have any interactions with women and girls on the trip that you found particularly memorable?
I met with three students who use a New Zealand scholarship to train at various universities here. I learned that their culture is very much based on their homeland and it is very important for them to do what they can to protect and preserve the ability to stay there. There are some very real problems on Kiribati and Tuvalu that include sanitation, overcrowding, domestic violence, rates of unplanned pregnancies which are going to make the aims that these nations need to achieve in terms of climate change difficult to manage when they have got all these other significant population issues occurring.
What do you see as some of the critical challenges that women and girls face in these countries? Were any of those challenges highlighted on the trip?
The women who were active in the Kiribati Family Health Association (KFHA) described the extraordinary level of domestic violence they have to contend with, something like the third highest rate of anywhere. This was one of the facts that we raised with the Minister of Foreign Affairs because we want to see what we can do in terms of our aid programme to support that. Now that’s really about overcrowding and that speaks directly to the work that we want to encourage all of those people working in this space, UNFPA and others, around good education, information and access to contraception.
What were some ways in which women and girls demonstrate resilience/the ability to rise to these challenges and persist despite the difficulties that they may face?
I take my hat off to the women anywhere in the region that has the kind of thing they have to deal with. There are very low levels of employment therefore low rates of income. Women are trying to develop a sense of economic empowerment in very, very troubling conditions. Where increasingly salinity of groundwater where if you are trying to, on Tuvalu for example, convert crops into articles to sell, into crafts and the like, that increasing salinity of your groundwater means that your crops are in danger.
In terms of the wider family dynamic, in Kiribati as land has become more precious, family groups have had to live together much closer so they are living literally on top of each other and that is creating the pressure which is increasing the rates of domestic violence. There is a little of land reclamation going on, and a little bit of mangrove plantation going on to try to increase the land base but that is slow steady work. So in the meantime, trying to find solutions for them in terms of how do we live together in such confined situations.
There are high rates of teenage pregnancy in many Pacific island nations. Did this issue come up in any way on the trip?
It did come up in our discussions in Kiribati. We talked about the types of contraception that was available. The long-acting contraceptives aren’t really promoted or available there. We know across the Pacific, there is cultural sensitivity to talking about this with women who aren’t married but who are sexually active. It is this kind of we don’t talk about this but it is occurring. They have scores and scores and scores of teenagers who exit the school system have nothing to go to. There are 2000 school leavers each year, and 300 get into tertiary education and not very many get into work. It is huge problem. It is the lack of availability of contraception and the groups [like the Kiribati Family Health Association] are doing what they can to raise awareness but they could certainly use some help.
Do you have any specific stories of individual women or girls that you would like to share?
One of the students I met is a young mom. She is at a university in New Zealand on scholarship and juggling that with being a young mom. She is going to be such a huge contributor to her island. What we have found is that those who have these scholarships is that they go back to their home islands and they actually become permanent secretaries in government departments; they take very high level positions.
What do you think we in New Zealand can learn from the approaches you saw or heard about during your trip?
You cannot overstate how important it is for people to be able to determine for themselves what is right. You can guide them and you can offer things but is for them to decide what is in their best interest.
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