Emalus Library Online Documents Collection - Vanuatu

A Place In The Sun Despite the lingering power of kastom, women in Vanuatu are recognizing their worth and taking strides toward equality

Leora Moldofsky/Uripiv,

Source: Time International, 08-20-2001, pp 48+.

Uripiv's traditional dancing ground contains the age-smoothed
ceremonial stones of generations of the Vanuatu island's chiefs.
The most recent addition was set in place seven years ago, during
a rank-taking ceremony for Madlaine Regenvanu. That day, the
Presbyterian Church elder swapped her cotton dresses for yellow
paint and grass robes, clubbed a pig to death and received a
traditional name, Leili. Presiding over the ceremony were her
brothers-in-law, then Deputy Prime Minister Sethy Regenvanu and
Chief Young John, who chairs the council of chiefs on Uripiv, a
lush coral islet near Malekula island.


Madlaine Regenvanu is also a leader--of committees she has
established and workshops she organizes to assist women, educate
young people and help change the attitudes of men. It was in
recognition of these achievements that in 1994 Regenvanu was made
a chief--the first ni-Vanuatu woman on record to be so honored.
"Uripiv men used to expect their women just to be in the
kitchen," she says. "But now I'm on all the decision-making
bodies, and they follow my advice."


One of five independent Pacific island nations that have ratified
the U.N. convention on the elimination of discrimination against
women, Vanuatu guarantees its female citizens the same rights as
men. Gender equality is a commonplace of government policy, and
women's development is an integral part of national reform
programs. Yet despite lawmakers' good intentions, and the
advances made by women like Regenvanu, kastom (tradition) is
still used to justify discrimination and violence against women
in the village and the home. With two-thirds of ni-Vanuatu
illiterate and 80% still living subsistence lifestyles in remote
rural areas of the archipelago's 83 islands, "most women," says
National Council of Women director Grace Molisa, "are still
unaware they have any rights."


On his 1774 voyage through the Melanesian islands he named the
New Hebrides, Captain James Cook observed that in some places men
treated their wives like "pack horses." In Polynesia, too, women
were expected to submit to their husband, says Tongan-born Amelia
Kinahoi Siamomua, an adviser at the Pacific Women's Resource
Bureau in Noumea. But what Siamomua calls their "sacred status as
child bearers" absolved Polynesian women from working outside the
home. Their Melanesian cousins had no such respite. Says Vanuatu
Supreme Court registrar Rita Naviti: "Where I come from [in
northern Malekula], pigs were the measure of a husband's wealth.
Pigs, unlike wives, had names." Women are still doing more than
their share of hard work, says Regenvanu: "We plant crops, work
in the garden, fish, collect firewood, cook and look after the
children. Sometimes the men help, but not much."


Tom Numake, chairman of the Malvatumauri (National Council of
Chiefs), says women's value to men is embodied in the Melanesian
custom of bride price, in which a suitor traditionally gave his
prospective wife's parents pigs, mats and kava to compensate for
the loss of her labor. A few years ago, the council ruled that
bride prices should be paid in cash, to a maximum of $550. That
makes ni-Vanuatu women feel like objects in a shop, says Vanuatu
Women's Center coordinator Merilyn Tahi, and lets men believe
they own their wives' labor, sexual services and children. "We
see lots of cases," says Tahi, "where a man says, 'I have the
right to beat her because I bought her.'"


When the father of her first child struck Marilyn Kalangis, she
gave up on the idea of marriage. "I was not prepared to live
under someone else's order," she says. Sitting in her office at
ANZ Bank headquarters, overlooking Port Vila's harbor, Kalangis,
who is now the bank's international services manager, says,
"There's no way I'd be sitting here if I was married." Council of
Chiefs head Numake says kastom does not give men the right to
beat their wives. He should inform his daughter, Julie Keina.
"It's my husband's right to hit me when I don't do something he
asks," says the mother of six.


Changing that attitude is the aim of the Vanuatu Women's Centre.
Established in 1992, it offers counseling, advice and temporary
shelter to about 400 victims of domestic violence each year.
While it's estimated that 1 in 4 ni-Vanuatu women are beaten by
their partners, most don't talk about it, Tahi says, because "the
male attitude, that it's a private matter, has infiltrated the
police and the legal system."


Loti Nelson had been hospitalized four times by her husband's
fists before she attended a workshop organized by Tahi in 1998.
After that, whenever he beat her she told the police, "so he
stopped trying." Now the softly spoken Nelson runs a mobile
clinic for domestic violence victims on Tanna island, one of 15
such clinics in remote parts of Vanuatu. "Some women want to kill
themselves," she says, "but I tell them it's not their fault. And
I tell their husbands that what they are doing is wrong."


Some men, at least, appear to be listening. Whenever Charleon
Falau had problems at home, he used to beat his wife. "It's the
culture I grew up with," he says. Now Falau, an actor with the
Wan Smolbag theater company, uses words to resolve his disputes
and to teach other ni-Vanuatu--through touring productions of
plays on social themes--that domestic violence must stop. Not all
communities welcome the Wan Smolbag players--or their message. In
the Tanna village of Yakel, Nelson has heard stories of rape,
incest and violent beatings, but none of the women will seek
help. Tatau, a mother of eight, says the village chief punishes
wrongdoers by making them pay fines of pigs, kava or chickens,
but she just wants to "do whatever the chief says," even if that
means her children miss out on schooling. "We have our own custom
and culture," says the chief. "If our children go to school, they
may not want to come back and live this way."


"That's not a good way to control people," says Uripiv's Chief
Young John. But Tom Numake, who presides over the island chain's
2,000 chiefs, says deviating from kastom is leading ni-Vanuatu
astray. Numake wants to revive an old Tanna tradition that
allowed the husbands of pregnant and nursing women to have sex
with a female designated by the chief. "It's a form of family
planning and protection for mothers," Numake says, "that keeps
[other] girls safe from unwanted pregnancies." Kastom should not
be clung to for its own sake, says Hilda Taleo, director of the
Women's Affairs department; if Vanuatu is to develop, she adds,
some of its traditions will have to go: "After all, we used to
have a tradition of eating people."


Some educated ni-Vanuatu women are reclaiming kastom as a source
of strength. "If we don't have kastom, we are nobody," says the
Cultural Centre's Jean Tarisesei, who is leading a project to
investigate and preserve traditional ways of life in the
archipelago. What is being revived, however, "is an ideal of past
practice," says Australian National University Pacific Studies
professor Margaret Jolly. "It's not necessarily how things were
100 or 200 years ago." But for women like Council of Women
director Molisa, learning about societies like the one on her
home island of Ambae--where women "had land, earned titles and
commanded respect"--is as inspiring as the language of equality
and human rights she learned at school in New Zealand.


The first ni-Vanuatu woman to graduate from university, publish a
book and hold a senior government post, Molisa comes from a
family of traditional and church leaders, "so it was expected
that I would succeed," she says. But other Ambae girls were also
blessed with role models--in the classroom. Says Women's Affairs
director Taleo: "We were motivated by graduates who came back and
encouraged us to develop academically." Few Vanuatu women are so
fortunate. For every 100 children who enter primary school, 20 go
on to secondary school--and just two finish Year 12. And when
money for school fees is short, boys tend to be first in line.


International scholarships to support the school and university
studies of ni-Vanuatu girls are helping to narrow the gender gap.
But real strides won't be made, Molisa says, until women have a
voice in Parliament. Though it's six years since a political
party endorsed a female candidate, Molisa's Vanuatu Women in
Politics group is training aspiring M.P.s to raise funds,
campaign and devise policies.


Regenvanu plans to stand as a candidate at the next general
election. If she succeeds, her first priority will be improving
educational opportunities for ni-Vanuatu women. Entering
Parliament will mean leaving Uripiv--and the training center,
library and guesthouse complex she founded and named Ngaim Orsel,
Garden of Plenty. But now Uripiv has a new generation of young
women ready to follow Regenvanu's counsel, emblazoned on the
center's facade: EDUCATION IS YOUR LIFE. GUARD IT WELL. Putting
that slogan into practice could be the key to improving the lives
of ni-Vanuatu women.

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Last Updated on: Monday, 16 July 2007