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Economic empowerment of women is a ‘development game changer’ because when more women participate in either the formal or informal economy, their families, communities and countries become wealthier. This empowerment requires removing barriers such as discriminatory laws, changing social and cultural norms that expect women to take on the lion’s share of home and family care, and doing much more to address the drivers and causes of gender inequality, exclusion and vulnerability.

In the Pacific, gender disparities that have the effect of excluding women are the result of the roles that society assigns to men and women; attitudinal and structural barriers to equal participation in decision-making; obstacles to access to justice, inheritance and ownership; and value systems that link masculinity with authority of women in some parts of the Pacific. Against this background, women’s economic empowerment in Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs) is therefore about promoting economic equality in both the formal and informal sectors through i) increasing job opportunities and closing the pay gap between women and men; ii) reducing impediments to informal sector activity where women often dominate; and iii) simplifying processes for business licencing and loan access.

Women already make a large contribution to PICT economies. In Solomon Islands, the annual turnover at the Honiara Central Market is USD 10–16 million, with women responsible for about 90% of market activity, both as bulk-buyers from farmers and as retailers. In Papua New Guinea, women are largely responsible for food production, valued at USD 55 million per year. In Samoa, 80% of the private sector comprises micro-businesses and women are estimated to head over 40% of them. Women may not be formalising their businesses for several reasons. Culturally, they are not expected to become successful in business although they may be expected to engage in income-generating activities. In some countries, for example, Tonga, there is growing acceptance of female entrepreneurship, at least at the sole trader level. But as in many societies, economically active women have a ‘double workday’ – combining responsibilities for home and family with their economic activities. For example, in Papua New Guinea, women work on average nearly twice as many hours as men, and in Tonga, they spend 50% more hours than men on non-economic activities each week.

Pacific governments have made numerous commitments to gender equality and women’s economic empowerment at national, regional and global levels over many years. They have made progress in legislative reform and policy making, but implementing the new laws and policies remains a challenge.

Where are there gaps in implementation and why is women’s contribution to economic development in the Pacific not better recognised? To answer these questions, we need to examine the underlying causes of inequality and identify drivers that can help trigger increased commitment and progress. These include the following:

(i) Recognising that changes in community attitudes and behaviour can only be achieved gradually, requiring the support of both women and men to break down stereotypes about gender roles and responsibilities in the home, employment and community.

(ii) Ensuring that the perspectives of women and men are taken into account in forming national development plans and budgets. This requires governments and decision-makers to recognise the roles of men and women in both the formal and informal sectors in their economic and social policies and programmes.

(iii) Enhancing legal protection and reforming discriminatory laws and, most importantly, ensuring that once enacted the laws are implemented and enforced.

(iv) Removing gender disparities in relation to property rights and improving access to finance and technology.

(v) Improving public and private business culture and practice to increase women’s employment prospects and acknowledge the importance of the informal sector to the overall economy.

(vi) Reducing and redistributing unpaid work and care. This factor relates directly to (i) above and requires careful and well-supported negotiation and a shift in societal values and norms to recognise that sharing these responsibilities has benefits for individuals, families and communities.

(vii) Enhancing the collection, analysis and dissemination of data on gender to support effective policymaking, as outlined in (ii) above. This is critical to understanding and acting on impediments to, and drivers of progress in women’s economic empowerment.

(viii) Strengthening the collective voice and representation of women on all of these factors to ensure sustained progress and success.

Based on this analysis, and in line with the new Pacific Platform for Action, recommendations have been developed under the five areas of the Platform. A full list of the recommendations is included in the paper.

In terms of information requirements, there is a need for further studies on issues such as the impacts of cultural, political, religious, social and economic structures; the effects of communal property rights and traditional social structures; utilisation of technological and social innovation; the potential economic benefits of supporting women in raising families and sharing care responsibilities; and increasing women’s opportunities to respond to economic incentives.

There are many paths for mainstreaming gender in economic development approaches. For example, government procurement policies can include incentives for corporations and companies to employ more women and appoint women to their boards, and fiscal measures can be used to support employment of women with disabilities and young women. Gender analysis can be used to identify the impacts of macro-economic policies on women’s assets and economic empowerment and on people in hardship. Improvements in infrastructure and communication can support women’s economic participation and increase the rewards of their participation; for example, UN Women’s Markets for Change programme in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu is enhancing conditions for vendors by improving market-place governance, facilities and access. Policies must ensure that women are fully included in disaster preparedness and recovery, and in approaches to climate change. Attention to cultural industries and small-scale farming and fisheries is also highly important for women, particularly in relation to informal economic activity.

Key to the success of initiatives to enhance women’s economic empowerment is the establishment and maintenance of partnerships between governments, the private sector, civil society, development partners, financial organisations and academic institutions. While each has separate roles, collaboration can promote sustainable gains. Recommendations on how the roles of each of the partners can be enhanced are included in the paper.

Achieving gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in the Pacific will require long-term investment that reflects the integrated nature of the issues that create gender inequality.

Pacific governments have made repeated commitments to gender equality and women’s economic empowerment but there are major weaknesses in follow-up and monitoring to ensure accountability for results. The paper recommends regular and rigorous monitoring and reporting process for the governments and CROP agencies to demonstrate their efforts in terms of practices and resourcing to effectively progress the implementation of commitments to gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.