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In the recent general election (May 2002) Vanuatu elected its third ever woman (Isabelle Donald) to parliament. In 1987, Hilda Lini and Maria Crowby were the first women elected to parliament of Vanuatu. Hilda Lini served three terms and Maria Crowby one. During her term, Hilda Lini was also Minister for Health. From 1998 to 2002, Vanuatu had no women’s representation in parliament, although equity is enshrined in Vanuatu’s constitution, the Comprehensive Reform Program and Vanuatu’s ratification of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1995.

The reasons women in Vanuatu are so under-represented in national, provincial and municipal governments are complex and include the reluctance, and in some cases direct opposition, of some (both men and women) to acknowledge women’s rightful place in the decision-making processes of the country. These attitudes are deeply embedded in traditional custom and Christianity. Particularly in the early days of independence, many members of parliament were also church pastors and today many are chiefs.

Conservative attitudes, such as believing that the man is the head of the household, are difficult to change. For example, recently the president of the Council of Chiefs, Tom Numake, publicly stated that women of the island of Tanna had no place in either politics or the judiciary. Tanna women protested strongly, publicly berated Tom Numake for his statements and demanded he apologise (Trading Post 2002).

Attempts to change this situation in the past have been ad hoc and lacked a clearly planned and coordinated approach, as well as political will. However, this does not mean that nothing has been done to try to change this situation. In particular, NGOs such as the Vanuatu National Council of Women and Vanuatu Women in Politics (VANWIP) were active in the 1995 and 1998 elections, particularly when none of the political parties fielded women candidates. In 1998, as a political protest VANWIP put forward a number of women candidates. All stood as independent candidates, including Hilda Lini. VANWIP gave cross-party support and training.

VANWIP realised that its protest probably would not be successful in getting a woman elected to parliament. However, it was successful in raising women’s political profile. The VANWIP women candidates experienced hostile opposition from both men and women (Molisa 2001).

The reluctance of political parties to nominate women is probably the single biggest barrier to women being elected to parliament in Vanuatu. If people stand as independent candidates, they do not have party machinery behind them. Candidacy is costly in terms of support, advertising and registration fees. Independent candidates have to raise funds to cover the costs. If they stood as party candidates, women would recover these costs, in theory anyway.

Another significant barrier to women’s representation is the ‘first past the post’ electoral system used in Vanuatu for national elections. The ten countries in the world with the highest women’s representation in parliament all have proportional representation elections. Such systems provide an incentive for political parties to broaden their appeal to voters by adding women to their party lists. The results are significant, especially when the ‘zebra’ rule is applied, that is, every second seat goes to a woman (Inter-Parliamentary Union).