Women in the South Pacific face many challenges. In Melanesia conflict and political instability exacerbate their situation. In the Solomon Islands, women faced ethnic conflict and then lawlessness as armed gangs held sway before last year's Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission.
In Bougainville, women have endured the horrors of civil war, including rape and other violence. In Fiji, the 1987 and 2000 coups brought instability, damaged the economy, and fanned ethnic tensions.
When instability and conflict prevail, it is too often the women who suffer the most. And fresh problems arise in post-conflict societies like Bougainville and Solomon Islands.
Many men used to the status they gained from war and weapons have trouble reintegrating into a fragile postwar society with few employment opportunities. Too often they take their frustration out on their wives and children. Alcohol abuse increases, and domestic violence rates rise.
This situation is compounded by the dominance of men in traditional South Pacific society. Men are the public decision-makers and political leaders. If women exert any influence, it is behind the scenes. The Solomon Islands pidgin word for "husband" is "boss".
Women in Melanesia are also affected by the inadequate delivery of services such as health and education, particularly in isolated areas. In PNG the problem is acute, where service delivery has ground to a virtual halt in some parts of the Highlands.
Notwithstanding all these challenges, South Pacific women have played a critical role in ending conflict and building peace. In Bougainville in the 1990s, women came together to promote peace and reconciliation, often putting themselves in danger to tell the men to stop the fighting.
In the Solomon, women in the capital Honiara interposed themselves between the two militias for weeks in an effort to end the conflict. They formed the Women for Peace Group, which worked with militia groups, the government and others to promote peace in 2000. It is now internationally recognised that women are often best placed to act as peacemakers in war-torn or insecure societies. But this crucial role in ending conflict and building peace has not translated into a greater role for women in the formal peace processes, or in the post-conflict society.
In Bougainville, women were relegated to the sidelines of the peace talks, and have been marginalised in the autonomy process. In the Solomon Islands, women were in large part excluded from discussions once ethnic conflict ended in 2000. It is imperative that South Pacific women acquire a leadership role in the formal peace processes and in their societies.
South Pacific women's groups are working to improve women's status in society, and a lot is being done to assist South Pacific women to play a greater leadership role. UNIFEM, the UN's development fund for women, is working to raise awareness of women's constitutional rights and to encourage women to take leadership roles.
AusAID and many non-governmental organisations are doing much to improve the lives of women in the region. It is important that women continue to be deployed on assistance missions - as police, for example, or lawyers or financial experts. They serve as role models for the women in that society, and send an important signal to the men. One of the lessons from East Timor and Bosnia is that women prefer relaying their conflict experiences to other women.
Australians over the past decade or two have largely forgotten the South Pacific. We tend to know more about Europe, the US and the Middle East than we do about our neighbours. That needs to change. Last year the Australian Government turned its attention back to the South Pacific. It is time for all Australians to reconnect with the region. We need to re-establish people-to-people links with the South Pacific, including business to business, student to student, and also women to women.
International Women's Day is a day to rejoice in how far women have come, to remind ourselves how far we have to go, and to redouble our efforts to assist other women around the world to have peaceful, prosperous futures.
This article is based on an address to UNIFEM's International Women's Day Breakfast and was first published in The Sydney Morning on 9 March 2004.