At a recent address to ANU College of Asia & the Pacific students, Marshall Islands President Hilda C. Heine spoke about the importance of women in leadership in the Pacific.
As the first female President of a Micronesian country and only one of three women serving in the Marshallese parliament, President Heine told the audience she was not a natural leader, but had to learn through life experience.
“Being number eight in a family of ten siblings, I was at the bottom of the heap, so leadership was something I had to teach myself. Nothing could’ve been better training than being a mother and teacher," said President Heine.
President Heine spent many years as a teacher and her passion for teaching led her to become the Minister of Education. In the role she introduced a series of reforms including changing language policy by increasing teaching texts in the Marshallese language and restructuring the governance model of schools to allow greater autonomy.
After four years serving as the Minister of Education, in 2016 Heine was elected President.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” she told the audience.
Although the Marshall Islands is a matrilineal society, President Heine made clear that there are great challenges facing women who try to enter positions of political leadership.
“Two of the biggest issues facing women in the political area are resources and self-confidence. Many women don’t put their names forward for election. The more that women put their names out there, the more we can lead by example,” said President Heine.
President Heine campaigned that gender equity should not be a “them and us” issue between men and women, but should be a unified cause.
“In the Marshall islands we have many gender champions at all levels. We have male leaders who campaign against domestic violence, these are church leaders, traditional and government leaders. It’s important to cultivate everyone's support.”
Early on in her career, President Heine founded the women's rights group Women United Together Marshall Islands . She is the first Marshallese citizen to obtain a doctorate.
Image: ANU College of Asia & the Pacific Dean, Michael Wesley with President Hilda C. Heine on campus.