The newest President on the planet: IWDA congratulates Dr. Hilda Heine – first female leader of the Marshall Islands

February 5, 2016

Women in action. Photo: Anna Carlile
Photo: Anna Carlile

This week saw the tremendous announcement that Hilda Heine is the new President of the Marshall Islands. This is monumental in its significance. She is the first female President of an Independent Pacific Country.

The Pacific region has the lowest levels of women’s participation in political processes in the world, standing at 13.4% representation of women in parliaments, against a global average of 22.7%. Beyond these averages is the staggering reality that some of the Pacific Islands Countries to this day have no women at all in their parliaments. Hilda Heine is exceptionally well placed to lead her nation. She is the former Minister for Education. She was the first Marshallese women to gain a PhD (education) which stemmed from her many years in Hawaii where she also worked with an influential organisation focussed on Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL). Hilda’s career in senior public service positions includes developing important education policy for young people and a long term commitment to the community sector. Her decision to enter politics is built upon a strong base of community engagement, international knowledge and academic expertise. In the history of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine was a driving force in advancing women’s affairs, working in the late 80s with WUTMI – Women United Together in Marshall Islands, where she is acknowledged as a leader and champion for the advancement of women.

It is interesting to witness the political change in this Pacific nation. From a long history of Chiefly systems that saw only the appointment of male parliamentarians and Presidents, we are now witnessing more commoners taking roles in government. This brings younger people and the ability to appoint women to the top job coming to the fore. However, it will only be through a coalition of senators from across the Islands, willing to respect and support the new President, for this nation to recover from the present economic and political challenges the new President inherits. We’ve seen this before. We know how this can play out for women in the top jobs.

International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) is a proud participating partner in the Australian Government’s Pacific Women Program delivered and funded through our Australian aid program. This program recognises the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration of 2012 which saw Pacific leaders committing to improve women’s leadership in the region. It acknowledges “the lack of women in leadership and decision-making roles in the Pacific has been an enduring problem which has undermined the regions development goals. Scholars have attributed this to the pervasiveness of masculine political cultures, the view that politics is ‘men’s work’, electoral systems that tend to favour men and women’s lack of access to election campaign financing and support.”

IWDA knows that strong women’s rights organisations and movements make a difference when it comes to advancing gender-sensitive policies, behaviours and attitudes at national and international levels. Our program partnerships have invested in women’s civil and political leadership capacity for the past 30 years, strengthening leadership in the places where it exists and the points from which women can advance their career choices. We are proud to associate with programs that are building democracy and women’s rights advocacy that enables women to claim their rightful place in national decision-making and nation building.

We pay our respect to Dr. Hilda Heine and wish her success and fortitude for the journey ahead.