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Slow progress on Pacific women's rights

WELLINGTON -- Women in the Pacific region face some of the highest domestic violence rates globally and are the worst represented politically, the Pacific Islands Forum has warned as the world marks International Women's Day.

The PIF Secretariat's gender adviser Seema Naidu said progress on advancing women's rights was being made, but it remained “slow and inconsistent” in a region where traditional attitudes still dominate.

“Women already have limited rights within our small societies,” she told AFP. “It's largely limited by patriarchy, by culture and the different conditions there (in the Pacific).”

Fiji-based Naidu this week traveled to New York to highlight the plight of Pacific women at the U.N.'s annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women.

Research released by the World Health Organization last year found 68 percent of women in areas of the Pacific reported suffering physical or sexual abuse from their partner.

In Fiji, an independent report found one woman a day suffered permanent disability as a result of domestic violence, while in Papua New Guinea, Amnesty International said allegations of witchcraft were often used as a pretext to abuse women.

Naidu said the geographic isolation of many Pacific island communities meant women often had no access to legal aid, health services or even proper policing to protect them.

She said women's advancement was also stalled by the frequent disasters, such as cyclones, that hit the islands, because it forced them to concentrate all their resources on providing for their families.

“They are the last ones to eat and they become the managers, the ones that try to ensure that there's food,” she said. “It's an added burden of responsibility.”

Naidu said the result was a region where only five percent of parliamentarians are women, the lowest rate in the world.

“The biggest challenge in terms of women's leadership is the prevailing attitude toward leadership — it's seen as very masculine,” Naidu said.

“The mindset needs to change.”

However, she said there have been advances, such as Samoa last year introducing a 10-percent quota for women in parliament and Tonga passing domestic violence legislation.

“It hasn't changed at the pace we want, but there has been some progress,” she said. “Apart from commitments, there needs to be real action on the ground.”

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