Member of Provincial Assembly, Birao Ward, Guadalcanal Provincial Government, Solomon Islands
Serving Provincial Assembly Member for Guadalcanal Provincial Government, Hon. Ileen Sulukonina has beaten all odds to be elected as the ward member for Birao in 2010. She is the sole female representative among 20 men in the Guadalcanal Provincial Government. Being a woman and a peace-leader, Hon. Ileen brings participatory, mediation, negotiation, cooperative and nurturing leadership traits, among many others. Here is her story of accomplishment.
I came from an inter-marriage between Malaita and Guadalcanal. My mum is originally from a village in the highlands of Guadalcanal called Birao. She married my father who at the time was a teacher teaching at the Catholic Mission School. At first my father did not acknowledge me as his child but as I grew up, all my physical features took after him. When my father noticed this, he was very sorry and regretted all the bad treatment he had shown towards me. I became the apple of his eye from then on.
I attended high school and completed third form but suddenly got married at the age of 16 to a boy from Temotu Province. Even though I was young, I had to abide and comply with married life as taught by my father. Later I had my first child, but sadly I lost him just after birth. I then had my second child just before the ethnic tensions rose between Guadalcanal and Malaita. The ethnic tensions broke down my marriage and left my mind troubled. I sought the advice of the Bishop of the Catholic Church to help me through. After some time I met a lovely man from Makira Province. He had a heart for me and for my child and agreed to raise my child as his own. We are still very happy together.
The Big Decision
“Although I was competing with my own relatives, that is, an uncle, who was the reigning member, and an aunty, who lived overseas and had the funds, I was able to strategise my campaign by focusing on what the “male members” hadn’t achieved previously, and organised activities that helped women and youths, the profits of which would eventually cascade into their families.”
As opposed to men candidates, Hon. Sulukonina had to seek permission and get blessings from the traditional Chiefs, her family, church, women’s groups and even her competitors (uncle and aunty) to stand for provincial elections for the Ward.
“Community’s association for the candidate is of utmost importance – I didn’t have the ‘material handouts’, instead talked to them about what “men candidates” hadn’t achieved, for instance, lack of transparency and accountability in their reporting; lack of understanding of their roles leading to poor leadership, being gender-in-sensitive in their approaches leading to one-sided decisions and profit-seeking rather than implementers.”
Joining Local Government
“In 2010 I became a Provincial member and sometimes I faced challenges and criticism but I manage to overcome those situations and until today, every one love me and during my time as Provincial member, I worked closely with women and children in the communities. I am very happy to when I see a lot of women attended this program and I want to urge everyone not to give up but to move on further in life. Even though we faced challenges, bear in mind that there is someone out there that has concern for us.”
“Challenges to serving the people have also surfaced in way of negative attitudes toward my ideas during the GPG meetings”, says Hon. Sulukonina. She resigned as an Executive Member of GPG and now serves as an ordinary member because she feels that she may be able to achieve her goals better, instead of being dragged down with discouragement.
“I am unable to express my entire views and feelings towards issues as all other members are male, including the Premier, who often states that “we respect women and that they were not being neglected.”
“If they maintain that they respect us women, then what’s stopping them to listen to our views and take our good ideas on board?” she questioned.
“Most members do not understand gender-responsive budgeting and thus no programs are specifically designed or have allocations to cater for this group. For instance, during 2010, following the ‘tensions’, I organised a sporting event. Although there was high turnout, no women participated as the sport only catered for men’s soccer. There was a lot of opposition among the members when I called for women and girls to be included. They feared for more tension, but in fact women are the ones who have led as peacemakers and bring about that leadership, among many other traits of good leadership in decision-making.”
Hon. Sulukonina added that whilst women’s involvement in peace leadership was recognised by men, they tended not to support or be biased toward other forms of leadership and empowerment of women. The attitude of “big man” leadership, cultural and traditional association of men (and not women) being at the helm of clans, churches and other communal and or traditional systems of leadership have all contributed negatively towards efforts to increasing inclusion and participation of women at all decision-making levels across sectors.
After being elected in 2010 as a Provincial Assembly Member for the Birao Ward, she was harassed by other fellow male members, while her own ward members who lived in Honiara requested for money. However, as time passed with numerous successful projects for her community, members returned to apologize for their behaviour.
“I was even harassed by my uncle’s wife, but later received an apology from my uncle who encouraged me to be strong.”
Other attitudes amongst both men and women were: leadership should be reserved for old men and men generally who were believed to be physically strong. And because of this i.e. the age factor with most elected members being over 50yrs, they tend to be inactive and do not focus on empowering youth (boys and girls) to be future leaders.
Due to the attitude that leadership should be reserved for older men and men in general, Hon.Suluknonia used this to her advantage.
“I was able to turn this aspect into a good campaign strategy and get votes from both the women and youths and men who believed in empowerment and a motivated community.
Although I am not physically strong, I would fight using my voice, and bring about the necessary change.”
“In many communities, where the elected reps and MPs are male, women, youth and even some men find it difficult to share views, concerns and ideas due to their strong status quo. Women leaders, because of their different styles of leadership, including being co-operative, participatory and nurturing, are able to bring the communities closer by being more approachable and achieve shared goals. Thus most women, youth and some men tend to communicate with me”.
Soon after the tension, Hon. Sulukonina was able to help make peace with the community (her Ward), also MP Constituency to help the Member of Parliament designate to make a visit. She stated that a cordial relationship with the MP was important as they are able to channel funding and thus increased development work for their Wards, which eventually benefitted the people.
‘I also seek advice and have a good working relationship with my uncle, who lost the elections.
Most Ward members are unable to work with former colleagues mainly due to clashing ideology and mandates, although they are part of the community they serve.’
‘I am also able to successfully negotiate specific projects such as solar powering, installation of water tanks and generators for the villages from the donors. I have put in place a good project monitoring and a reporting back system, thus there is accountability and transparency in the work we do.” I also ensure that both men, women and youth benefit, thus the donors are happy with the approach and do not hesitate to assist,’ she adds.
“On various other support, Hon Sulukonina said “SINCW, Vois Belong Meri and MYWCA who supports capacity building for aspiring women candidates also need to fully understand the context of gender issues and how to get the support of the men and the voters. The challenges are huge, but can be overcome, if the right approach is taken.”
Words of Advice
Ileen strongly believes that given the opportunity, women can and will make a change at all levels and sectors, contributing positively toward national and provincial development. In terms of the Pacific FLOW Program she says, “I am very happy when I see a lot of women attending this program during the network activities and I want to urge everyone not to give up but to move on further in life.”