Statement By Her Excellency Hilda C. Heine, Ed. D President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands Micronesian Women’s Conference Opening Ceremony “Navigating Change” 08 August 2017, Majuro Marshall Islands

Traditional Leaders and members of the Council of Irooj
Honorable Cabinet members and their partners
Speaker Kedi, Mrs Kedi and members of the Nitijela
H.E. Kourabi Nenam, Vice President of Kiribati
Hon. Ministers for Women from Micronesian Countries and heads of delegations
Hon. Senators from neighboring national and state governments
Ms Eliza Wilcox of the Australian Embassy
Special recognition to our off island speakers:

  • Andrew Jacobs, Ambassador to the Marshall Islands and the Pacific from the European Union;
  • Fekita Utoikamanu, the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries, and Small Island Developing States, United Nations

Members of the diplomatic and counselor corps; a special recognition to UN permanent representatives from Micronesian countries of Nauru, RMI and FSM
Present here today
Representatives of development partners and regional organizations
Ladies and gentlemen

It is my pleasure and honor to deliver a few remarks this morning during the opening of this momentous Micronesian Women’s Conference. The Republic of the Marshall Islands is privileged to host this event having last done so back in 1993. During that time, the event was hosted specifically in preparation for the 1995 Beijing Platform of Action Conference, which was an important international conference for women. It was during this occasion that we first heard five simple words which is now said all over the world when discussing women’s issues: “Women’s rights are human rights.”

These ordinary words were uttered by none other than former First Lady and Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton. “Women’s rights are human rights.” Such an obvious statement – and yet, at the time, this was revolutionary – simply because, for so long, women were seen as perhaps less than human? Even subhuman, if you will. Despite the fact that we are, actually, exceptional human beings.

This important gathering brings together exceptional representatives from Micronesian nations and territories, and other Pacific neighboring countries, delegates who share the same belief – that the advancement and well-being of women and girls is correlated to the advancement of a people, a nation, sub-region and or a region. I extend a special Io̗kwe and welcome to you all and thank you for making the journey to be here for this important work.

Since the 1995 Beijing Conference, we have made some gains as a region, according to the Pacific Beijing Plus 20 review.  Progress is seen in an increased in the number of women in decision-making positions; laws and policy reforms in response to violence against women have been enacted; access to health and education for women have improved and,  in some cases, girls have surpassed their male counterparts, and some progress in the area of women and the economy are noted.

However, much more needs to be done in order for women and girls to achieve their full potential. The theme of this Conference is therefore highly relevant and timely as we take stock of our journey, where we have come from, and look towards the future.   The well-being of future generations of Micronesians is at stake.

Studies have shown that our Pacific region has some of the highest incidences of violence against women in the world; we hold the lowest rate, at 12%, of women parliamentarian of all regions of the world; the average labor participation rate of our women is between the range of 30 to 40 percent and the health of our women and children is generally poor. The emerging issue of climate change is challenging us not only to be involved but to be well informed about how each of us can adjust, adapt and continue to be resilient. Similarly, adjustments to cultural expectations are called for in order to navigate changes confronting us.

Marshallese cultural tradition, like other cultures and traditions represented here today, honors its women with distinct roles and responsibilities that still have applicability to our societies today. As a matrilineal society, a common saying in Marshallese is, “Aelon Kein an Kora” or “these islands belong to women.”  Further, many Marshallese proverbs speak to the multiple roles of women. Jined ilo kobo is a proverb which has been resonating with me lately. Jined ilo kobo can be loosely translated as “eternal mother.” It can also be translated to mean, “mother holding her children close to her heart” the nurturing role of a women/mother. It recognizes that the responsibility of the family rests with the mother first. In our society, women as Mothers are held accountable for the well-being of the family, clan, and nation. That is a tall order. And yet, who is held accountable for the well-being of mothers/women? We say that women hold important roles in society, and yet how are we supporting them? And how fair are these responsibilities and expectations we place on women? What are the costs of these expectations?

My daughter, a poet, finds this translation, ‘eternal mother’ particularly beautiful: Eternal, meaning lasting or existing forever, without end or beginning. Valid for all time, essentially unchanging. I think there is something to be said about the fact that we see motherhood as lasting or existing forever, essentially unchanging. My daughter is now 29 with a daughter of her own, yet I continue to mother her, and will never stop seeing her as my child. I am currently the President of this nation, and yet I will always be, first, a mother and a grandmother.  Eternal mother. We are taught to mother others before ourselves, to the point where we place our needs last. And yet, if we continue to deplete ourselves for others, what is left?

My daughter has a poem, in which she uses the metaphor of a basket to talk about the role of women. On the page, the poem is written to look like two halves of a basket. One half considers the negative aspects of the woman’s role – what happens when the basket, the woman, is seen as nothing more than a receptacle. She writes, “Woman tip your lid towards the table/ you swell with offering/ you offer/offer/offer/Scrape your floor bare./Vessel?/ Receptacle. /Littered with scraps./Tossed by others.”

We need conferences such as these, because we are constantly focused on others, and if we don’t focus on ourselves, all we get are the scraps.

New responsibilities in our modern world call women to be everything, eternal mothers, and much more. To meet expectations as well as be taken seriously, we have a responsibility to ensure we are well-prepared to take on these multiple roles, traditional and modern ones, but to also create systems and networks to support one another. Not doing so, short-changes our families, clan, communities and therefore, our respective nations.

A critical element in facilitating women’s leadership, in all sectors, and at all levels, is coalition building and networking. In this way, women can be supported to exchange ideas and information, learn best practices from each other and aggregate their individual and organizational efforts to create synergies, so that we are not left behind, or left with scraps. This Conference serves to do that and more. It is our hope that a Micronesian Women Development Network or Forum will be one of the outcomes of this conference

The Micronesian Women’s Conference is an opportunity for our sub-region to reflect on our journey in progressing gender equality.  It is also an opportunity to review our respective commitments and response towards gender equality expressed through leaders commitments to regional and international frameworks for development such as 2030 Global Sustainable Development Agenda, the Pacific Platform for Action for Women, the Pacific Plan, and the 2012 Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration, to name a few.  Without a doubt, there has been a lot of “talk” about progressing gender equality.  We need more concrete actions and substantive support to back those talks and commitments.

The three-day Conference will focus on 5 thematic areas that will discuss some of the pressing issues faced by women and girls in Micronesia in relation to violence against women, economic empowerment, women in leadership, climate change and women’s health, all comprising the overall theme “Navigating Change”.Navigating change is about steering our canoe, our walap and our vakas, towards gender equality across all sectors. It calls for political will and commitment at the highest level, reflected not only in ensuring laws and policies are in place for the protection and advancement of women and girls, but that these laws and policies are accorded the resourcing they require for enforcement and implementation.

Our theme calls for enhanced coordination and collaboration at national and regional levels and across all sectors. It requires the creation of innovative partnerships for sustainable development that responds to the needs at the country level while leveraging regional support that our regional organizations are able to provide in line with their respective mandates and areas of expertise. It is about strengthening the voice of civil society in the women’s movement and engaging the private sector and the business community to enhance outcomes for women and girls. And finally, it requires strengthened partnerships between men and women at all levels as navigating change begins with ourselves and with our families and communities.

Our task in the next three days is to discuss and agree on an agenda, as well as strategies, to progress gender equality across Micronesia, and to position our sub-region at the upcoming Triennial Conference of Pacific Women and Ministers for Women meeting in September in Fiji. This would help us as a sub-region to advance our issues collectively at the broader regional foras that we are a part of, and to also inform our engagements at the international level such as at the Commission on the Status of Women, COP 23 and others.

I urge you all not to shy away from this task. We need to set our minds on the world we want. To use the words of the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. As nurturers, caretakers and caregivers of our children, elderly, customs and way of life, as eternal mothers, gender equality ensures an opportunity to join the rest of the world in safeguarding our heritage for our children.

At the end of the day, all this work we are doing boils down to that – our children. In the second half of my daughter’s poem, she considers the positive aspects of being a woman – especially when we consider our daughters. The possibilities of this new basket, this new offering of brilliance and resistance that comes from this new woman: “Woman tip your lid /across the table/ you swell with offering/you offer/offer/offer/earth of your mother/seeds of your father/you/thin dried strips of leaves/the next basket/waiting/ to be/woven.”

As you begin your deliberations this week, I encourage each and everyone one of you to ‘weave that new basket’ to engage actively in the discussions to help finding ways to breaching gaps and breaking barriers for women and girls in our region from participating equally and fully in their homes, communities and countries. It is important that women’s voices and views are heard.

I would like to congratulate our Minister of Culture and Internal Affairs, the Honorable Amenta Matthew and her staff, the Office of the Chief Secretary, Women United Together in the Marshall Islands, sub-regional gender focal point officers, and the Pacific Community for their dedication and hard work in making this conference a reality.

I would also like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to the Governments and peoples of the Republic of China (Taiwan), Australia, and the European Union, for their substantial support towards this Conference. Kom emol Tata.

On that note, I declare the Micronesian Women’s Conference officially open. Kommol Tata im Jeramon nan Aolep!

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