Republic of the Marshall Islands


The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is an independent Pacific Island nation that lies in the north-western Pacific Ocean. RMI is made up of 29 coral atolls, each containing many islets surrounding a lagoon, and five islands, however, only 22 atolls and four islands are inhabited[1]. In 1979 RMI gained its independence from the United States of America (USA) to become an independent sovereign state. A Compact of Free Association between RMI and USA came into force in 1986[1].

Women and the Law

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) currently has no domestic violence, sexual harassment, human trafficking or sex tourism legislation in place. There are also no minimum sentences or mandatory prosecutions in cases of sexual violence. 

The RMI Constitution grants protection to customs and traditions, with no provision for giving priority to the rights of individuals whom customary law discriminates against (including where it is discriminatory against women), in non-compliance with the Convention on  the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It should be noted that customary law can in some circumstances be advantageous to Marshallese women, specifically in terms of the tradition of matrilineal property title

RMI has legislated against the admission of evidence of the victim’s prior sexual conduct with persons other than the accused, however, in non-compliance with CEDAW, evidence of sexual conduct with the accused can still be admitted in an attempt to prove consent

RMI traditionally has a matriarchal society, with land rights traditionally inherited along the matrilineal line, however, this tradition is being steadily eroded as Marshallese society urbanises and the population increases, making the tracing of lineage and land rights more difficult.

The Council of Iroji is the upper house of the Marshallese parliament and is made up of members appointed by virtue of their chiefly titles. Although women are not normally given chiefly status they are not prohibited from holding it and the Council of Iroji currently has three female members (of 12 in total). The Council of Iroji is particularly empowered to review matters relating to customary law.

Violence Against Women

Approximately 58% of men and 56% of women generally accept that violence against women is a normal part of marital relationships and 36% of RMI women have experienced either physical or sexual violence, with spouses being the most common perpetrator of both. About 22% of all RMI women report experiencing physical violence in the previous 12 months. Among women who have experienced physical violence, 72% reported that a current husband or partner committed physical violence against them, while 21% reported that they had experienced violence by a former husband/partner. 

Women and the Economy

Of RMI’s labour force, 41% are employed in the private sector and 31% in the public sector, with self-employment amounting to 25%. The remaining 3% of people comprise employers, unpaid workers, and paid workers in family-operated businesses or farms.

About 66% of men are classed as economically active, compared to just one in three women. Female unemployment rates are much higher than male unemployment rates, with national averages of 37% and 28% respectively.  Substantial differences also exist in wages earned by men and women with similar educational qualifications: women’s average wages were measured at US$7595.00 annually, compared with US$10,772 for men in the same jobs

Although there is no legislative barrier to women in RMI accessing financial services such as loans and mortgages, discrimination can obstruct women from obtaining credit, which impacts on their economic independence, ability to engage in business and equitable ability to earn a livelihood.

Traditionally, matrilineal succession of land rights afforded women a position of influence in society, however, the erosion of customary land tenure practice means many women no longer have autonomy over land and married couples tend to live on land belonging to the husband’s family. This is identified as increasing women’s vulnerability, as they are deprived of protection previously provided by brothers and uncles.

RMI appears to be on track to eliminate gender disparity in education, with largely equal rates of enrollment in both primary and secondary schooling, however, dropout rates for girls in secondary and tertiary education (associated with adolescent pregnancy) continue to be of concern, impacting on women’s economic participation

In the outer islands, women’s workload has tended to increase over time, and high male unemployment has meant that women have increasingly become the sole economic providers for their families.

Women’s Health

Health issues specific to the RMI include the generational impacts of the 67 atmospheric atomic and thermonuclear weapons tests carried out on RMI territory between 1946 and 1958. These health impacts include high instances of birth defects (frequently called ‘jellyfish babies’), miscarriage, and weakened immune systems as well as high rates of thyroid, cervical, breast and other cancers. These birth defects cause particular distress to Marshallese women, as local culture views reproductive abnormalities as a sign that women have been unfaithful to their husbands.

In addition to specific health impacts, populations of Marshallese citizens were also displaced from their home islands by the nuclear testing and compelled to live in areas with inferior agricultural and marine resources. In particular, the dispossessed residents of Bikini Atoll are estimated to have had higher levels of radiation exposure than any other population in history.   

The majority of men (73%) and women (60%) have had sex before they turned 18, yet rates of condom use at first sexual encounter are extremely low. Approximately 94% of births in RMI were assisted by a skilled attendant and the country is on track to achieve Millennium Development Goal 4, that of halving rates of mortality for children under five (U5M). The U5M rate fell by 51% in the period of 1988 to 2009. Adolescent fertility rates remain by far the highest in the region (at 138 per 1,000 live births), however, the rate of adolescent fertility has declined substantially in the period of 1988 to 2007. The number of sexually active women with unmet contraception needs is also low by regional standards at 8%.   

About 91% of Marshallese women have low daily consumption of fruit and vegetables, 55% have low daily levels of physical activity, and 52% are classified as obese. Communicable diseases common in RMI include amoebiasis, conjunctivitis, gastroenteritis, gonorrhoea, influenza, leprosy, scabies, syphilis and tuberculosis. RMI is off-track for achieving the Millennium Development Goal of reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis by 2015.

Women and the Environment

Annual maximum and minimum temperatures have increased in both Majuro and Kwajalein since 1956 and 1960 respectively. In Majuro, maximum temperatures have increased at a rate of 0.12°C per decade, and at Kwajalein the rate of increase has been 0.2°C per decade. Satellite data indicate the sea level has risen near the RMI by about 0.3 inches (7mm) per annum since 1993. The global average is 0.11-0.14 inches (2.8-3.6mm) a year. 

Climate change and rising sea levels pose the gravest risk when it comes to food security and physical security for Marshallese women, a culture where primary care is a traditional role afforded to women. In a matriarchal society where women are the custodian of land, culture and tradition, the threat of climate change in destroying atolls and land poses an even greater threat to the depletion of language and identity. This heightens poverty and increases the vulnerability of women.

UN Women in RMI

Advancing Gender Justice in the Pacific (AGJP) Programme: UN Women continues building the capacity of its government and civil society partners for CEDAW implementation and reporting, particularly in adopting a harmonised human rights treaty reporting approach. When it comes to women’s political participation, UN Women is undertaking advocacy initiatives through its Empowerment Series Events.

Ending Violence against Women (EVAW) Programme: This programme provides stakeholders with access to virtual knowledge platforms, tools and evidence-based resources in order to better equip them with the knowledge and evidence to advocate for strengthened EVAW legislation, improved policies and services for violence against women survivors. Social media tools are also made available to support community mobilisation that aims to end violence against women and girls, through campaigns such as the United Nations Secretary General’s UNiTE to EVAW and Say NO-UNiTE.

Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) Programme: UN Women is supporting informed decision-making in RMI by providing technical assistance to national and local government in producing knowledge products that include improved and comparable evidence on the economic situation of RMI’s women.

Increasing Community Resilience through Empowerment of Women to Address Climate Change and Natural Hazards (IREACH) Programme: UN Women supports the incorporation of gender dimensions in strategic documents for disaster risk management and climate change through the provision of knowledge products and tools on the gendered implications of climate change and disasters.

[1] UNDAF country assessment