President’s Day: Hilda Heine

President’s day is a public holiday in the Marshall Islands that is celebrated every year on November 17th.  The date was chosen because it coincides with the birthday of the first Marshall Islands president, Amata Kabua.  Official events include a brief wreath-laying ceremony at Amata Kabua’s tomb, a special luncheon hosted by the incumbent president and an official message from the president broadcast on local radio.

This year Marshallese Manit will commemorate President’s day with a biography of educator, politician and current president, Hilda Cathy Heine.

President Heine was elected in 2016 as the 8th president of the Marshall Island’s.   She is the first female president of the Marshall Islands and of any Micronesian country.  She is only the 4th head of government for Oceania.  The representation of women in politics of Oceania is one of the lowest in the world.  Women have never comprised more than 10% of the membership of Pacific Island Forum parliaments.

President Heine was born on Jaluit Atoll to Reverend Bourne and Kathy Heine in 1951 where she grew up and attended public school.  She  moved to Majuro to pursue her secondary level education at Marshall Islands High School. Following high school studies, President Heine attended University of Oregon (1970), where she earned her undergraduate degree, a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii in 1975 and an Education doctorate at the University of Southern California in 2004.    She is the first person, and so far the only person,  in the Marshall Islands to earn a PhD.

She is married to Tommy Kijiner and has 4 children and several grandchildren.  Her daughter, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a well known poet and climate change activist.   After attaining her Masters degree, Dr Heine has worked as a school teacher (1975-1980) and counselor (1980-82) on Majuro.  In 2000, Heine founded Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI), a women’s rights group.  Dr. Heine previously served as Minister of Education in the administration of former President Christopher J. Loeak.  

She was elected to the Nitijeļā (Legislature) November 2015 representing Aur Atoll.   On January 27, 2016, Heine was elected President of the Marshall Islands.  She received 24 votes with six abstaining and three absent from the 33 members of the Nitijeļā.  President Heine succeeded Casten Nemra who was ousted by a no-confidence motion just two weeks after his inauguration.

President Heine enjoys reading historical and contemporary writings with special emphasis on education and social administrations in small island developing states and likes to listen to music and cooking.