Participation of Women in the South Pacific
On behalf of the Baha'i International Community, I wish to thank the South Pacific Commission (SPC) most warmly for the invitation to attend its 28th Conference.
As an international non-governmental organization in consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council since 1970, and with UNICEF since 1976, the Baha'i International Community has been part of the expanding global process of NGO cooperation with the United Nations and with its Agencies. Our collaboration with the United Nations has proven to be mutually beneficial. And we feel this is true also of our relationship over the past several years with the South Pacific Commission, where our collaboration has, for example, taken the form of co-sponsorship of a health education programme and support for the youth programme, including sponsorship of resource people for youth workshops held in the Cook Islands at Aitutaki and in Niue Island.
Recently, this relationship was further strengthened through participation in the SPC's Fourth Regional Conference of Pacific Women, held in Suva, Fiji, 17-23 September. The Baha'i International Community's Governing Council, upon receiving information about the Conference from our Representative in the Pacific, deemed the Conference important to the work of promoting social and economic development of women in the region. It was agreed that Baha'i representation to the Conference should include as many Pacific Island communities as possible. Fourteen women from eleven island Baha'i communities attended the Conference - a number of them grass roots women, one from South Malaita in the Solomon Islands, for example.
The Fiji Government, which hosted the meeting, did an excellent job organizing the Conference, thus facilitating the discussions of the substantive issues. In addition to the recommendations that came out of the workshops, the Conference was worthwhile in providing opportunity for sharing valuable information, and for developing further the process of networking in the Pacific between governments and non-governmental organizations, in relation to women's activities.
A post-conference meeting was held in Suva for the Baha'i representatives. In-depth discussions were held on such topics as health, nutrition, youth activities, leadership training and networking with other NGOs. On the first day, Dr. Allan Phillips gave a workshop on learning disabilities to the representatives and to medical doctors, nurses and teachers in Suva. As a result of this workshop, Dr. Phillips has been invited to conduct a similar workshop at the Fiji Medical School.
Baha'i Representatives returned to their countries prepared to report to their communities all they had experienced at the Women's Conference, and to consult with their Governing Bodies about future activities.
The Baha'i International Community gave strong support to the Conference, drawing on its hard-won resources to sponsor the women representatives because it believes that the well-being of humanity, the realization of social and economic development and the establishment of world peace require the recognition of the equality of men and women as a spiritual principle, and the consequent participation of women with men in all fields of human endeavor.
Baha'i communities in the Pacific region, most of them at grass roots, are currently engaged in such a process of integrating women into all aspects of community life and decision-making. We would like to share from our own experience some of what we have found valuable.
- In Baha'i communities, both men and women, as an act of faith, are committed to implementing the principle of equality. Both are engaged in developing attitudes that are appropriate to equal status for women. Men, in fact, through membership in Baha'i communities, are learning from experience that when women become fully incorporated into the life of the community, everyone benefits.
- From the beginning of the Baha'i community, women have been involved in the electoral process of its institutions. The elected local councils which guide Baha'i community affairs have done a great deal to encourage the participation of women and nurture respect for diverse views. These grass roots organizations involve the community in identifying needs, devising plans, and carrying them out. Among their concerns are the education of children and the implementation of service projects that benefit the whole community. Baha'i women all over the world are increasingly being elected to these local councils, exercising the responsibilities of membership and thus gaining experience in decision-making.
- Regular participation of Baha'i men and women in the consultative process accustoms them to solving problems collaboratively. Consultation requires that each person offer his or her views freely to the group in the search for an answer that will provide for the well-being of the entire community. Once offered, however, these views no longer belong to the person, but are regarded as being the property of the group. The decision reached through this process is, likewise, accepted as the product of the group and not of any individual.
- One step in the direction of greater participation for women has been the formation of women's consultative groups. In these groups, women, who have often been isolated from one another, can share experiences, practice consultation, encourage each other and develop plans. This experience prepares them for service on local elected councils and encourages them to express their views. The groups also provide a place for literacy training, spiritual and intellectual growth, and for the dissemination of information on health, nutrition, child care and other practical information.
- Encouragement from the community is essential. Plans generated by these consultative groups are submitted to the elected council for consultation, approval and subsequent recommendation to the community for action. The development of a community spirit in support of their initiatives gives the women courage and creates the moral and psychological climate for dynamic and harmonious change, which is the goal of all Baha'i development projects.
The Baha'i International Community takes pleasure in offering these brief comments and suggestions towards a framework for the full integration of women into all aspects of development and society. We extend to SPC - as we have in the past - in the spirit of warm cooperation, the experience and assistance of Baha'i communities throughout the Pacific in achieving a better quality of life for the peoples in the region. We look forward to a continuance of the cooperative, productive relationship which we have had with SPC in many areas of mutual concern during the past several years.