Falling Through the Net: Gender and Social Protection in the Pacific

Helen Lee
Katherine Lepani
Anna Naupa
Michelle Rooney

Pacific women are hardworking, creative, resourceful, and resilient. Yet, their predominant portrayal is one of vulnerable victimhood distinguished by limited opportunities for empowerment and intractable gender inequality and gender violence. Our discussion of gender and social protection in the Pacific starts with the recognition of women’s agency while also acknowledging that pervasive structures and processes of inequality severely constrain their creativity and resilience in adversity. Pacific women are doubly devalued by masculinist structures that have their origins in both indigenous cultures and the introduced culture of a globalising capitalism, in both colonial and contemporary epochs. This discussion paper considers these dynamics in three countries of the region – Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and Vanuatu – and explores how best to approach social protection so as to promote gender equality rather than risk reinscribing prevailing gender inequalities. The paper emphasises the need to move beyond bipolar divisions of customary and commodity economies or informal and formal economies to consider the everyday realities of making a living. Women will ‘fall through the net’ if social protection is unduly yoked to the public sphere of the state and the formal commodity economy in which women are marginalised. Indigenous forms of social protection – safety nets grounded in kinship and collective relations to the land – are fraying with commoditisation, especially in the context of extractive industries such as mining and logging, as well as urbanisation, tourism, and real estate speculation. This is further diminishing the little influence women have over land as both resource and place of belonging. Hence, we suggest that efforts to ensure women’s social protection in the Pacific need to be alert to the risks that women might ‘fall through the net’. Women’s own perceptions of their contemporary situation and their agency as both individuals and collectivities (articulated in church groups and civil society organisations) should be carefully heeded in finding creative solutions for gender equality in social protection for sustainable Pacific futures.

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Research Type(s)
UN/IGO Document
Submitted by Toksave
March 22, 2021
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