‘DigitALL- Innovation and technology for gender equality’
Keynote for PIF celebration of IWD March 8, 2023
HE. Merewalesi Falemaka, Permanent Representative of the Pacific Islands Forum to the World Trade Organisation (WTO)
Ni sa bula vinaka and I send you all warm greetings from a cold and grey Geneva.
I wish to thank you for the invitation to share briefly my career experience and perspectives on the theme of the IWD this year: “DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality”.
Turning firstly to my career, I came to the Pacific Islands Forum as Trade Policy Adviser on WTO issues in January 2000. This was after 18 years of work in the Fiji Government, about 15 years of that spent in the Ministry of Trade and Industry from a temporary relieving clerk rising through the ranks to Chief Economist at the time I left. I am most grateful to the Fiji Government for the extensive work experience I gained working on trade, industrial, investment and small business policies during those years. This also included an opportunity to further my studies at the University of Queensland graduating with a Master of Economic Studies as well as a Diploma on GATT Trade Policy Course in Geneva in what is now the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
That experience and training placed me in good stead for the position of Trade Policy Adviser on WTO issues (2000-2006) which included the establishment of this office in 2004 based on a decision by Forum leaders in 1999. I was then retained to support the Pacific negotiations on an Economic Partnership with the EU (2006-2009) considering that the EPA was required to be WTO consistent. After 4 years as Director of Trade at MSG Secretariat, I took up my current position in 2013. Altogether I have spent 19 years of my working life in this organisation, (Pacific islands Forum Secretariat) supporting our members and our region in international Geneva, especially in the complex world of the WTO.
You may wonder why I have stayed on this long. First, trade is a dynamic area which continues to sustain my interest and recognising that all our members are dependent on trade to meet basic needs. One principle that has guided my working life is, to keep my focus on the people we serve whether we are in government or in the region serving our members. As we experience here in Geneva, small countries like us need to stand together as a region to have a voice and to have an impact in international fora.
Women in the Pacific have come a long way from the 1960s and 70s when we rarely found women in leadership at the political level, in government and in the private sector as well as our various communities. Our region has had two women leaders, the former President of the Marshall Islands and the current Prime Minister of Samoa, and a number of women are in various parliaments around the region. Our region has also seen four women heads of regional organisations – the SPC, SOPAC, PIFS, currently FFA and I note the incoming head of the WCPFC (Tuna Commission). Here in Geneva, I am happy to note that out of the five Pacific Missions in Geneva three (Samoa, RMI and Tonga from London) are headed by Women Ambassadors and this will soon increase to four with Nauru’s new Ambassador. Although Pacific women are making positive inroads into positions of leadership, the numbers are still small.
More needs to be done in all aspects of society, in the private sector and in our communities. However, not all women may become Prime Ministers or politicians. We should not neglect women wherever they may be, playing their different roles at different levels in our society.
Women are agents of change, resourceful and innovative
In the 1960s, we have often heard the famous line that a women’s place is in the home. But home provides a good training ground for many successful women today – women who are resourceful, innovative and can become effective agents of change at home or at the workplace. Women are the first finance managers that our children run to for bus fares, the first nurses they run to when they are sick, the first economists that provides advice on the different options for the family, whether to pay for a fridge now or to start saving for school fees for high school.
Many Pacific women now have better access to education. For example in the FWRM’s recent report on Beyond 33% launched last week, Professor Wadan Narsey noted that Fiji women University graduates have increased from 43% to 47% in the decade to 2015/16. He concluded that education is no longer a barrier to the workplace.
Women should be confident and bold in instituting changes that improve the lives of people.
IWD – DigitALL – Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality.
Turning to the theme of the International Women’s Day today – DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality.
Digitalisation with the accompanying advances in information technology is transforming lives around the world. The digital economy brings huge opportunities to integrate women and youth, and to enhance rural-urban links. We must ensure that women are not left behind.
The one thing that the COVID pandemic has taught us is that, it has accelerated the shift to digital economy. Pacific women are innovative. Domestically we see that Pacific women are already buying and selling through virtual or social media platforms. These include small business owners or stay home women who are using sewing skills, baking skills, weaving skills to earn an income. We even read of teachers providing tutorials virtually. Increasingly Pacific businesses including women are finding the regional and global marketplace at their doorstep. This in itself opens another door to great opportunities across the region and globally.
The digital economy is a great enabler for women’s participation in the economy. However, to enhance women’s participation we must support our governments to create the right enabling environment through policies and regulations, provide training to women in digital skills, equip women with access to finance and promote access to affordable internet services.
PIFS, based on the work we did in PIFS Geneva is assisting the FICs in the implementation of the Pacific Regional Ecommerce Strategy that was endorsed by the Forum Trade Ministers in 2021 to help address challenges faced by the region. [The objective of the Strategy is to address the challenges faced by FICs through seven pillars which included enhancing access to affordable internet services, development of national policies and regulations on ecommerce, assisting with on-line payments system, facilitating access to finance and promoting skills training.] The Strategy is being rolled out for implementation in the region with the support of our donors such as Australia, the EU, the UNCDF and others.
We need to support these efforts by our governments and ensure they are tailored to women and that the Connectivity and Technology theme of the 2050 Strategy complements these efforts.
To conclude, let me thank you all once again for this opportunity to share this message and I wish you all an enjoyable International Women’s Day 2023. –ENDS
Merewalesi Falemaka has been the Permanent Representative of the Pacific Islands Forum to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) since 2013 and accredited as Permanent Observer and Ambassador of the Pacific Islands Forum to the United Nations Office and other international organisations in Geneva since 2018. Before joining the Forum, she served as Director of Trade and Investment/Economic Development at the Melanesian Spearhead Group Secretariat, Port Vila, Vanuatu. She has also served as Trade Consultant for Pacific States on Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) negotiations with the European Union, at Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Fiji; as the Commonwealth Trade Consultant for Pacific States on Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) negotiations at Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Fiji; and as the Trade Policy Adviser (WTO Issues) at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Fiji. Falemaka is a former Chief Economist in the Fiji Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Trade and prior to that held positions as Economic Planning Officer, Senior and Principal Economic Planning Officer. She holds a postgraduate Master of Economic Studies from the University of Queensland, Australia (1996) and a BA in Economics & Geography, from the University of the South Pacific, Fiji (1982). In 2023 as part of the Forum celebration of International Women’s Day, she delivered the above keynote address linked to the IWD 2023 theme ‘DigitALL- Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality’.