‘I can rise above expectations’: the woman breaking barriers in Pacific politics | Pacific islands

IIn the final days of her election campaign, Cathy Norrie considered giving up. The 57-year-old woman was climbing a mountain near her home in Isabel province, Solomon Islandswhen she was overcome with exhaustion.

“I couldn’t help but question my purpose, silently asking … why I was enduring such hardship,” Norrie said in an interview with the Guardian.

Yet at that moment, the former businesswoman gathered her strength and sought solace in her team.

“It was a pivotal moment, a fleeting temptation to surrender that I chose to overcome. The first-hand experience of fighting in rural areas fueled my determination,” says Nori.

Norrie turned to politics about a decade ago and, after two failed elections, will enter the Solomon Islands parliament for the first time this year. It will represent part of Isabel province, which has a population of around 35,000 and is plagued by problems including bad roads and a lack of infrastructure.

She is one of only three women elected to the Pacific country’s 50-seat parliament in the national elections last month. Norrie will be joined by Freda Rangirei Tuki, representing Temotu-Watud in Temotu Province, and Choileen Yim Douglas for Ngela Constituency, Central Islands Province.

Norrie says that after a decades-long career in transport, shipping and logistics, she aspired to enter politics. She has worked in senior management and has also served as President of the Solomon Islands Women at the Maritime Association, where she pushed for greater gender equality in the industry.

“I have proven that I am capable of performing tasks traditionally assigned to men,” Norrie says.

Dismantling of barriers

Since independence in 1978, few women have been elected to the Solomon Islands’ national government. only 6% of the candidates in last month’s elections were womenthe country’s electoral commission announced.

The Solomon Islands Women’s Rights Action Movement says the underrepresentation of women in politics is due to a number of factors, including cultural beliefs that women’s role should be confined to the home, religious norms and a lack of education.

Norrie entered the election as an outsider and says her victory marks a shift towards breaking down barriers in the Pacific country regarding women’s roles.

She says she faced many challenges, including “convincing both men and women that I am capable of accomplishing tasks traditionally associated with men.”

“In the province of Isabel, the cultural norm places women primarily in the kitchen in the household. One of my biggest challenges was to show both men and women that I could rise above those expectations,” Norrie says.

Election workers prepare to count votes in Honiara, Solomon Islands, after national elections in April. Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

“When will action be taken?”

The Solomon Islands have a population of about 700,000 spread over many islands. It is one of the poorest countries in the Pacific and relies on development aid from countries including Australia and China for support.

Norrie said she was motivated to enter politics after witnessing the challenges facing rural communities, particularly the lack of basic services.

She says difficulty finding copra, the white flesh of coconuts, for sale is a common challenge. According to the former premier of Isabel province, Rodah Sikalabu, in the Nori electorate, more than half the population is engaged in copra production. It’s labor-intensive—farmers pick the fruit, extract and dry the white flesh, and bag it for shipping—a process that can take weeks. Farmers then have to travel to sell their produce, but many villages are located in remote areas and the roads connecting them to larger cities are poor and often dangerous.

“People endure arduous journeys from mountainous terrains to coastal areas. This plight has plagued Isabel province for decades,” says Nori.

“When will action be taken? That energy propelled me into Parliament, fueled by hope that change was achievable.”

Now she hopes to improve the lives of people in the countryside, which includes “developing basic infrastructure, especially roads around the island.” Norrie also wants to review the “unregulated exploitation of our natural resources” on the island and provide more livelihood opportunities.

“I have supported many children by covering their school fees, especially those without paternal support. If there were opportunities for sustainable income generation, they wouldn’t need my help,” she says.

map of the solomon islands

Norrie says that despite the difficulties, she hopes more Solomon Islands women will pursue careers in politics.

“It is especially challenging for us women to demonstrate our abilities and become the voices of our people.

“I used to tell women and students, ‘You are leaders in your own right, in your own space.’ Just be authentic. It’s about embracing your power and pursuing your vision,” says Norrie.

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