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Women’s Representation in the Oceania Region: Hovering Between Parity and Neglect

This month, RepresentWomen released our Oceania Region Country Brief, which examines women’s representation at all levels of government in Oceania’s 14 countries. This brief analyzes system reforms, such as voting systems and gender quotas, that shape opportunities for women in politics within each country.

According to Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” country ratings, which are based on civil and political rights, all but two countries in the region, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, are classified as "free." However, even in free countries, women lack equal political representation. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union's October 2023 rankings for women in national legislatures, New Zealand is the sole country in the region that has achieved gender balance in parliament, making it the only country in the region to rank among the top ten countries in the world (New Zealand ranks fourth). Australia, which ranks 33rd, follows. 

Despite New Zealand and Australia ranking in the top 50, the rest of the region’s countries lag far behind. Presently, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea have less than two percent women's representation in their legislatures, and nine countries have under 15% women's representation. On average, women make up about 20% of Oceania’s lower and unicameral houses – lower than the world average of 27%. 

Two other Oceania countries, Samoa and the Soloman Islands, have implemented gender quotas as a means of advancing women's political representation. Both countries require a minimum of 10% women’s representation in parliament. As shown in other countries, quotas can be not just effective but also efficient, leading to relatively quick increases in women’s political representation. But, for gender quotas to result in true gender balance, they ought to be paired with other reforms, such as proportional voting systems, that remove barriers for women in politics.

Across the region’s government cabinets, women’s representation also remains mediocre, with the average women’s representation sitting at 17.8%. Unsurprisingly, New Zealand sits at the top of the list with 52% women in its cabinet, followed by Australia at 44%, Samoa at 23%, Micronesia at 20%, Fiji at 18%, and Palau at 12.5%. Oceania’s remaining countries have 11% or less women’s cabinet representation – three countries have no women in their cabinets.

RepresentWomen’s Oceania Country Brief highlights the stark differences in women’s representation throughout the region and disentangles why such discrepancies exist. We highlight the importance of systems strategies such as proportional representation (PR) voting systems and gender quotas and show these are most effective when implemented alongside one another. Fair voting systems such as PR create opportunities for nontraditional candidates to enter politics and win on a level playing field, while gender quotas help ensure more seats for women are secured despite potential existing social and political norms.

The above graph shows how women's representation has increased in New Zealand since 1996 – the date when New Zealand implemented a mixed-member proportional voting system. Women’s representation then continued to rise after the Green Party and Labour Party adopted voluntary party quotas.

Evidently, there is still a long way to go before the Oceania region reaches political gender parity on the whole. RepresentWomen’s country brief shows that paths to achieving parity exist and that countries such as New Zealand are paving the way by implementing fair representation voting systems. By investing in strategies that remove the barriers women face when running, winning, serving, and leading, we can imagine a world where countries like New Zealand are not the exception but, rather, the norm. 

Fatma Tawfik is the International Research Manager at RepresentWomen.

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