Women and youth must be seen as partners in development and involved, not just included, in decision-making, according to discussions at the United Nations conference on small island developing states which wraps up Thursday in Samoa.
“Girls are getting education and employment opportunities in the Pacific, but they also face harassment within school and work environments, as well as other social issues like domestic violence,” Tahere Si'isi'ialafia's Baha'I, 24, told UN Women in the capital Apia.
There are 91,000 Samoan women. According to official figures, the population of around 180,000 also includes 49,500 young people between the ages of 15 and 24.
“Youth representatives are often included in the preparatory stages of high-level conferences; however, when the outcome documents are released there is often little mention of youth concerns,” Ms. Baha'I said, such as youth employment or training opportunities.
At the four-day Third International Conference on Small Island and Developing States, one of the six multi-stakeholder partnership dialogues focuses on women and youth, as well as social development and health, including family planning and non-communicable diseases.
The overall goal of the partnerships is to bring together representatives of government, private sector, civil society and the UN family to network and partner for sustainable development on small island nations.
According to UN figures, islanders have high rates of teenage pregnancies, poor access to good quality education, and sexual support and reproductive health services, especially in rural areas.
Through a partnership with UN Women, the SVS group distributed cell phones to rural women in 2012, enabling them to report abuse to a centre helpline. In the first five months, some 1,700 calls were logged, according to Ms. Chang. The callers, whose ages ranged from 14 to 80, were put in contact with a counsellor or the police, as needed.
In 2005, the UN World Health Organization reported that 3 in 5 Samoan women had experienced physical violence, and 1 in 5 had suffered sexual violence. More than half of the abused women had not talked to anyone about it. Of those who sought help, 4 in 5 women characterized the abuse as “normal” or “not serious.”
The head of Samoa Victims Support Group (SVSG), Lina Chang, said that women in Samoa struggle with “feelings of being second best as well as being less educated and often need someone to turn to for help.”
Another issue facing rural women is climate change and erratic weather patterns which impact agriculture, particularly subsistence farming.
Speaking to the UN News Centre earlier this week, UN Special Envoy for Climate Change Mary Robinson stressed that “climate has to be an issue that women and young people and the very poorest have their voices heard.”
Mrs. Robinson is planning an event with her Foundation, UN Women and other partners to highlight the importance of women's participation on climate change, to coincide with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Climate Summit on 23 July.
A local women's rights advocate, Leilani Jackson, said that Samoan women are naturally vocal, many of them participate in women's committees in their towns, but she would like to see more of them “bring solutions to the table.”
One way to break the barriers might be through education, according to Tepora Wright. A former high school teacher in Samoan history and economics, Ms. Wright now works with the Government.
“Education expands the choices available to women and young people,” she said. “And I don't just mean in the formal sense, but also life skills, entrepreneurial skills which are usually transferred non-formally.”
In Samoa, many women are also finding such solutions in business. Micro-financing has enabled close to 1,000 rural women to set up successful small businesses.
For example, the art of traditional Samoan finemat weaving was revitalized over the past decade. Expert weavers can take up to six months to make an 'ie sae' from a particular type of panduna plant. The mats are so fine that a standard 9 by 12 ie sae can be folded up and put in a purse. Its price ranges near to $1,500.
A university lecturer on textiles and industries, Uila Leota is also a weaver. Her colourful handmade quilts, cushions and floor rugs are prominently displayed at the conference, and even attracted the attention of the head of UN Women.
Self-taught and self-motivated, Mrs. Leota is starting to share these skills with her teenage grand-daughters, so they can earn income to assist with family and school expenses. She told UN News Centre that she wants to share her skills with unemployed women.
One of the 300 partnerships announced this week is the “Women's Economic Empowerment Driving Sustainable Development in SIDS.” A Pacific partnership, it aims to increase women's access to finance and economic security, as well as create faster market places for women market vendors, who in the Pacific number up to 90 per cent.
The partnership includes UN Women, UN Development Progamme (UNDP), a microbank and banks, as well as Governments of at least seven countries, and street vendors.
Another joins women's parliamentarians and women's rights organizations with advocates to establish the Pacific Islands Women's Caucus to empower a movement that promotes women's democratic participation and leadership in the Pacific.
In Samoa, the Government unanimously passed a law last year reserving 10 per cent of parliamentary seats for women in an effort to improve women's political participation.
One of the longest serving Samoan MPs is a woman. Justice Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa followed her father's footsteps into politics as a young woman. She said that women are still a large untapped human resource and urged them to speak out with their own voices about the issues that matter.