1Feb

Women empowerment in Melanesia

It is obvious that globalisation has a huge impact on every part of the world – including the most remote corners of it. Globalisation can be defined as a complex of political, cultural, economic and geographic processes, in which process the mobility of people, capital, organisations and discourses take a global form. In today’s globalised world it is also very important to focus on the role of women. One of the most important consequences of globalism for women, is that due to the globally spreading idea of equality, woman are more involved in the job market. Nowadays, the major benefit of globalisation is that women are paid more for their jobs, however their salary still lags behind men’s.

The subject of this short analysis is the women living in the Solomon Islands and their inclusion in the financial system. I personally found it extremely interesting to collect more information about these women, firstly because they live in an underdeveloped rural region where it is certainly difficult to follow dreams and goals, secondly I believe that we still have major issues regarding gender inequality and we have to speak loudly about it to make positive changes.

Challenges in the Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands chain comprises several large volcanic islands to the south-east of Papua New Guinea. The island country is special for its variety of nature and it is considered as a prolific area. The largest proportion of the population live in rural zones and engaged mainly in subsistence gardening, pig raising and fishing but in the same time many of the inhabitants are also actively involved in the cash economy.

From my perspective it is important to give women all the opportunities for education, further development of their abilities, power, mind and body. Therefore their financial independence is of paramount importance. If someone wants to be prosperous and successful they need to gain knowledge. Unfortunately only education is not sufficient. Primary and secondary schools can provide with practical trainings in fields such as agriculture and development studies in the Solomon Islands and there are also several teaching-training schools and a technical institute as well – but it is not enough.

In rural area of the Solomon Islands there is not any formal banking service available and clients have to spend tremendous amounts of money on simple banking transactions. The financial sector in the Solomon Islands is relatively small and under-developed, and besides that, it is often hard for women to access banks because they are already busy with living up to the gender roles that society imposes: caring for children and elders, cooking, tending the vegetable garden and selling excess produce. Women may often also need the permission of their male family members to travel.

Gender inequality is one of the main problems of Solomon Islanders. Men are often considered as the head of the family. It is widely accepted that men have the right to settle rules and to dispose of money earned by “their” women. Consequently they control all finances of the family. As a result, women usually have to hide their own money and they can easily get into serious trouble when their husband or another male family member suspects that they are hiding money. There is no question that nobody would want to live under such pressure.

Solomon Islander women need financial literacy and skills training to save, start and expand businesses. They also need to have proper access to financial services and should be competent in financial management and investment. It must be a priority to take actions to increase women’s education, training and employment. The government should put an emphasis on incorporating entrepreneurship and business skills into the educational system and it is also very important to change school curriculum and to make gender based violence unacceptable.

Government initiatives

It is remarkable that Solomon Islands Government has already formulated a “Gender Equality and Women’s Development” policy for the years 2016–2020 to enhance the economic status of women. Thanks to the program, they can now participate equally in decision-making processes, get appropriate education and their economic status is one of the key priorities of the government. The political administration of the country also puts a special emphasis on eliminating violence against women and strengthening the capacity of gender mainstreaming.

Another key thing to remember is that the Central Bank of Solomon Islands established an award in 2015 to recognise the contribution of women in small business: the National Women Micro Entrepreneur Award. Five small business owners received the award. These women were involved in the Microfinance Savings Club, which was introduced by the Central Bank to help people in rural communities open savings accounts.

Women coming together to build community

The demand of Solomon Islander women to decide upon the use of their own money was put into effect when the women’s savings clubs were founded. The situation of women in the country inspired a group of ladies, led by Dr. Alice Pollard to found the “West ‘Are ‘Are Rokotanikeni Association” (WARA). The association is a women-led, volunteer-run savings club that gives women a place to come together, learn more about managing finances and store their savings safely. There are branches of these savings clubs all over the country, which means that women living in remote areas are not excluded either. The organisation established many different models for starting local savings clubs, but it is usually a group of women who agree on initiating such circles. According to their idea, the money is kept in a strong box with several locks on it, and all the keys are held by different members of the club. That way if a woman – or her husband – wants to withdraw money, she needs to seek the permission of several different people first. In this way both women and their money can be kept safe.

The clubs meet regularly to share skills that might be used for starting a small business and learn about saving and managing money. Women elect leaders who keep records of how much each woman deposits into the strong box. More and more women have been volunteering at WARA each year, and now it has more than a thousand members. In the 10 years of the savings club, members have taken out over 1,000 loans and saved more than a million Solomon Islands dollars.

In addition to the grassroots initiatives, the Solomon Islands Women in Business Association (SIWIBA) was an organisation that started to receive funding from the government to empower women and encourage them to start businesses. The main aim of the association is to inspire women to realise their full potential, importance and status, and be increasingly recognised and heard in the Solomon Islands society. Their mission is to promote, develop and empower women’s participation as business owners in the private sector. Some of the activities of SIWIBA – like the Mere’s market and Mini Trade Fair – engage in promoting women’s entrepreneurship. The one-week event took place at the National Art Gallery from 3–7 July 2017 and was open to members, non-members and women’s church groups. SIWIBA also invited companies to set up stands and display their products as part of its ongoing effort to forge partnerships with business sectors in the capital, Honiara. The Mini Trade Fair was hosted at this time to mark the 39th Independence Day of Solomon Islands. Although no funds were available, SIWIBA managed to put together a successful Mini Trade Fair event with the help of its members, board members, the Fair Committee and organisation staff. SIWIBA acknowledged deep appreciation to the companies that agreed to participate.

Globus et locus

All things considered, it seems reasonable to assume that The Solomon Islands Government is serious about improving the economic status of women. The Ministry of Women, Youth, Children, and Family Affairs, which is mandated to lead the formulation and implementation of policies relating to women, is working closely with other relevant stakeholders to empower women. Additionally, the Central Bank of Solomon Islands, through the Financial Inclusion Unit, is also partnering with the Ministry and other stakeholders to expand financial inclusion for women. This partnership has seen women’s groups set up savings clubs in rural areas of the country. The Central Bank continues to encourage and support more women through the provision of basic financial management training and financial literacy programs.

All these programs and progressive measures are partly due to the benefits of the global spread and development of women’s rights but also partly to the persevering work of local women’s associations that aimed at strengthening the status of women in accordance with the formerly mentioned global phenomenon. However the most important change-makers are those women who believe and aware of that they can be a driving force and the key to development in the Solomon Islands. Therefore, finally I can proudly say that there is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.

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