I went to netball training last week with a small Solomon Islands girl named Valerie. We were training together in the capital, Honiara, on one of two broken concrete courts. To get there, we passed through a litter strewn entrance surrounded by the watchful eyes of young men.
Valerie was among a group of 20 young girls, all great little netball players. They want to play netball regularly but they have no regular netball competition. As the morning turned into day and the sun beat down, we sweated rivers but the little girls’ smiles didn’t wane. Unlike my energy levels.
Earlier in the week the security blanket of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands had been removed and there was a sense of vulnerability in the city.
My self-funded trip saw me part of a delegation, organised by the Shadow Minister for Sport, Lynda Voltz, delivering a program designed to empower women and girls through sport, backed up with a women’s leadership seminar. Our visit was supported in Honiara by the Australian High Commission and UN Women.
Why the Solomon Islands? The NSW Parliament has a “twinning” relationship with the Solomon Islands Parliament whereby NSW clerks and staff provide support and advice around Parliamentary processes. Perhaps more importantly, is the fact that there is only one woman out of 50 MP’s in the Solomon Islands Parliament. Not only does the Solomon Islands have the worst representation of women in Parliament anywhere in the world, it also has the highest rates of domestic violence.
Our group included Pate Cooper, Netball NSW under-19s coach; marathon runner Jane Fardell; Bankstown Touch Football Association president Kylie Mazloum; Jenny Aitchison, Member for Maitland; Linda Kelly, former deputy mayor of Leichhardt; and Lynda Voltz. Sporting gear and White Ribbon material were provided by Netball NSW, NSW Touch Association, NSW Rugby League, Wyong Netball Association and Emma McBride, the Member for Dobell.
Pate Cooper conducted two netball coaching sessions, one for Valerie and her crew, and the other for elite players including some Solomon Island national players. Our delegation cobbled together a team and was thoroughly thrashed by the elite women.
Women from all walks of life – business, education, government, sport and law - attended our leadership seminar, many with political aspirations or just a desire for change. Everyone in the room well understood the need for change, but the challenges are immense. Cultural challenges, access to education and the financial realities of the benefits of political incumbency, are significant barriers to seeing women having a voice where it’s needed most.
From an outsider’s perspective, Honiara is a city struggling with modernity. What little infrastructure it has, is of poor quality and fails to meet the needs of residents. And the needs are obvious. Many people, particularly men, lined the dusty streets, doing little. Among the women we met – on and off the netball court – there was a real hunger for change, for the sake of themselves, their families, their communities and future generations. They know too well that positive change requires women to have a say.
I hope to be able to return to the Solomon Islands, not just to play against elite players but also women MPs from their parliament.
It’s the only way we won’t be thrashed again, and the only way young girls like Valerie, will have a bright future.