Unlocking the Economic Potential of Women in the Pacific

Article | 4 March 2016

Doing business in the Pacific is hard, but it’s a lot harder for women. Fortunately, sweeping reforms across the Pacific are creating an enabling environment for business and opening up opportunities for women.

In the idyllic islands of the Pacific, it is hard to make a living. The region includes islands spread over thousands of kilometers of ocean, forming some of the most challenging geography in the world. Many Pacific nations have limited infrastructure and services, and they offer few economic opportunities for their residents. In some areas it is a stark choice between subsistence farming and fishing, or trying to obtain one of the few government jobs.

Women face the same challenges, particularly those operating small businesses. But they also must overcome other barriers. Legal and cultural systems that prevent women from fully benefitting from their work and the local economy are common in the Pacific. This includes laws that prevent them from owning land or registering companies, limited access to courts and lending institutions, lack of opportunities to develop skills, as well as deep-seated cultural practices that discriminate against them.

“Pacific economies are missing out on a key local resource: the true economic potential of half the population.”

Taken together, these challenges severely limit women’s ability to participate in the formal economy and often exclude them from starting or running a business. As a result, many women must operate in the informal sector without financing, the security of bank accounts and legal contracts, or the protection of laws, including those that hinder harassment. 

The result is not only an economic loss for women and the families but also for society at large. Pacific economies are missing out on a key local resource: the true economic potential of half the population.

To help address this situation, the Pacific Private Sector Development Initiative is helping 14 countries improve their business climate in order to promote social and economic development. This includes a particular focus on bringing women into the formal business sector to increase their incomes and financial security, and to benefit society as a whole.

Some of the reforms supported by Private Sector Development Initiative (PSDI) that are supporting Pacific women include:

Business registration

Before 2014, a married woman seeking to register a business name in Solomon Islands had to supply the name of her husband. Reforms have resulted in the removal of this discriminatory provision. In addition, in Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu, company laws have been rewritten to allow “single-person companies” meaning women can now start a company on their own.

Technical skills training

Also in the Solomon Islands, women are being trained to become solar repair and maintenance technicians. This puts the maintenance of a key piece of local infrastructure - household solar power generation units - in the hands of local people. It also offers women a business opportunity that enables them to open bank accounts, save money, build confidence, and experience the benefits of entrepreneurship.

Employment in state-owned enterprises

Throughout the Pacific, governments are trying to reform government-owned or run companies in order to make them more efficient and improve the level of service they provide. As these companies are being privatized or reformed, they need qualified corporate professionals. Women in the Pacific are being trained to compete for these newly created jobs. This not only improves the social standing and incomes of women, but it also opens up a stream of potential new executives and employees for these companies.

Movable assets as collateral

In some countries, much of the land is owned by the community, not individuals. As a result, loans cannot be taken out against land in order to finance business initiatives. One reform ongoing is the creation of secured transaction frameworks incorporating online registries, which enable lenders to provide credit secured against “movable” assets, such as vehicles, crops, or future contracts. This makes it easier to pledge business assets as security for loans.

Review of competition and consumer laws

In Papua New Guinea, women have 25% less financial literacy than men, tend not to know their rights, and are less likely to complain (and more likely to be rejected if they do), according to a recent study. To help address this, PSDI is assisting the government to study the impact of competition and consumer laws on men and women, and how regulatory frameworks hinder women’s commercial activities. It is also reviewing laws and institutions with regard to the interests of men and women as consumers, and examining how laws that protect women consumers are being enforced.

As a result of these initiatives, countries and communities throughout the Pacific are gaining a greater understanding of the value of fully including women in the business community.

Empowering the Other Half, a booklet on PSDI's support for women's economic empowerment, explains this work in more detail.