As President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Dr Hilda Heine is the first woman to head an independent Pacific Islands state. She is one of only three women in the 33 member Nitijela (parliament). In the Marshalls, the President is elected by the members of the Nitijela in a way similar to the Westminster model of choosing a Prime Minister. Dr Heine became President in January 2016 with the support of 24 senators, including two of her own cousins. In a small country such as the Marshall Islands (pop. 53,000 in 2011), family ties are central to processes of being elected and forming government. Dr Heine’s own brother, the late Carl Heine, was politically active and served multiple terms in the Nitijela himself.
The Heine family are descended from missionaries and have a strong commitment to education. Hilda Heine was the first and only Marshallese to be awarded a Doctorate in Education. She has had a distinguished career in education, working for the Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) program at the University of Hawai’Ii, and serving as a classroom teacher, President of the College of the Marshall Islands, Secretary of Education and Minster of Education in the Marshall Islands.
Dr Heine’s educational attainments and management experience mean that she is held in high regard as a senior leader of the country, even though she lacks the chiefly lineage that has typified most Marshallese presidents. As President, Hilda Heine is admired for her consultative and inclusive leadership and her ability to make decisions and see them through to implementation. In her fifteen months in office, she has revisited a number of long term national challenges, including climate change, the legacy of ill-health and environmental contamination left by American nuclear testing and ongoing issues of poverty, economic development and emigration to the United States.
In a region characterised by low numbers of women in politics, Dr Heine’s election is something of a watershed. In many ways, she is an exceptional individual: highly educated, having an impressive record of professional experience, and coming from a politically engaged family. These qualities will be difficult to match for other women (or men) seeking to run for office, although they do reflect the qualities of most successful politicians in the Pacific (Corbett and Liki 2015).
Despite, Dr Heine’s exceptional qualities, several factors within the Marshall Islands context make it a place where we should not be surprised to see women in leadership. Traditionally, Marshallese society had a high view of women, especially as land owners, and today the female chiefly office of leroij is maintained alongside the male iroij. This traditional leadership appears to have translated well into modern systems. Many senior public servants are women, including nearly half of the departmental Secretaries.
There is a strong contemporary women’s movement in the Marshall Islands. Along with other women, Dr Heine founded Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI), a vibrant and well-established women’s NGO that runs a range of programs designed “to advance the causes and improve the lives of Marshallese women and their families” (www.wutmi.com). Over many years, WUTMI has provided an organisational structure that has allowed women to make common cause and articulate their needs and concerns in the public domain, often drawing on traditional sayings about the role of women. While not directly involved in campaigning for women in politics, these processes have legitimised Marshallese women’s leadership and paved the way for the success of Dr Heine and other women politicians.
Dr John Cox is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.