A Giant Leap for Women in Marshall Islands, and the Pacific

The new President of the Marshall Islands (right) with her daughter. Photo courtesy of The Marshall Islands Journal.
The new President of the Marshall Islands (right) with her daughter. Photo courtesy of The Marshall Islands Journal.

By Chimi Thonden

The recent election of the Pacific’s first female president can pave the way for more female leadership in the region.

Last week in a remote corner of the North Pacific, Hilda Heine made history when the Republic of the Marshall Islands Parliament elected her to be the country’s first female president. Ms. Heine is also the first female leader of any independent Pacific island nation.

Her election followed a brief, dramatic period of politicking. A vote of no-confidence motion overthrew former President Casten Nemra just 3 weeks after he was elected, and Ms. Heine assumed office confidently with 24 out of the 30 votes cast. She is one of three women elected to Parliament in 2015, tripling the number of female representatives in the 33-member body.

The election of Ms. Heine is especially noteworthy in the Pacific, where the average representation of women in politics is the lowest in the world at 8.8% (see table below from a forthcoming ADB report on gender statistics for the region and Timor-Leste). The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) pegs the current world average of women in parliament at 22.8%, and an IPU study shows that numbers of women in parliament do matter: the more women there are in a legislature, the easier it is to address women’s issues and to change the gender dynamics in the chamber.

Many international studies on women in politics reinforce the significant benefits that come from having women in leadership roles. Leadership teams that are comprised of mixed views—including women and men from diverse backgrounds—generate more innovative solutions to address today’s problems. While in many parts of the world females are now outperforming males for instance in education, the lack of women in leadership roles in the Pacific represents a failure to exploit the available talent pool to advance development goals.

I came to know Ms. Heine when she was Minister of Education. She is the first Marshallese to obtain a doctorate, and within the Pacific region she was among a small group of ministers who were educationist by training. Ms. Heine is the type of person who will ensure that the reforms she has initiated to improve education quality will continue under her presidency.

As a civil society leader before becoming a minister, she founded Women’s United Together in Marshall Islands, a local NGO that works on numerous social issues including violence against women prevention, education reform, healthy babies, and women in leadership. Ms. Heine’s strong leadership has laid a path forward for many other younger Pacific women to follow. One of these is her own daughter Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a climate change activist and poet who shot to fame when she was selected to present at the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Summit in New York in 2014. 

At least in the Marshall Islands, the country’s leaders have taken steps to promote the strong talent of a very capable Marshallese leader and woman, who hopefully has opened the door a bit wider for more female leaders in the Pacific.