7 months ago

Hilda Heine elected Marshalls president

11:27 am on 28 January 2016

The Marshall Islands parliament has elected Hilda Heine as the country's new president, making her the first woman to head the government of an independent Pacific Island nation.

Hilda Heine

Hilda Heine Photo: SUPPLIED

Her election came a day after a no confidence motion removed Casten Nemra, who had been sworn in as president just last week. His tenure is the shortest presidency in the island's history.

Dr Heine, the former education minister, the first woman in the country to obtain a doctorate and founder of Women United Together Marshall Islands, was the sole presidential candidate when the ballot was held at the Nitijela, or parliament, on Wednesday.

She secured 24 votes in the 33-member legislature in Majuro.

The election of Dr Heine is significant - she's the first female president in the history of the Marshall Islands, and one of just three women in parliament.

The representation of women in politics across the Pacific is one of the lowest in the world. Women have never comprised more than 10 percent of the membership of Pacific Island Forum parliaments, and the percentage of women in politics across the region currently sits at about five.

In Vanuatu's election last week, only eight women stood, but none was successful.

In the 47 years since Nauru was granted independence, only two women have ever been elected to parliament.

And during last year's Solomon Islands election, only one of the 50 successful candidates was a woman.

There are moves being made to improve women's participation. In Samoa, a law was passed last year which reserves five seats, or 10 percent of the 49 seats in parliamant for women.

But barriers remain. After the law was passed, the prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi told women thinking of running for parliament they should not neglect their families.

In the French Pacific, women's representation is higher. French law applies, which means that since 2001, men and women have to alternate on any party's electoral list.

In 2004, Marie-Noelle Themereau became the president of New Caledonia and first woman in the lead a territorial government. In the same election, New Caledonia also chose a woman vice president.

In French Polynesia, the law contributed to a majority of assembly members being women.

RNZ International's correspondent in Majuro, Giff Johnson, says Dr Heine has her work cut out for her.

He says there are huge outstanding problems in the country that need urgent attention, including improving relations with its major donor, the United States, and improving the health sector.

In November, the Marshall Islands had a general election, which saw a series of veteran politicians lose office, Mr Johnson says.

"[Dr Heine] is going to have to show the community that she can do the job, get in there and start taking some action on the many problems that motivated Marshall Islands voters to put 13 new people into the parliament. I mean 40 percent of seats changed hands. It is unprecedented national election for the Marshall Islands, really showing voter unhappiness with the status quo."