Emalus Library Online Documents
Collection - Vanuatu
A LITERACY PROGRAM FOR WOMEN IN VANUATU
Port Vila, Vanuatu
Source: Women, Christians, Citizens: Being Female
in Melanesia Today, Oceanic-Whitehall
Guesthouse, Sorrento, Victoria
11-13 November 1998; http://rspas.anu.edu.au/melanesia/literacy.html
Since 1989 I have been working in a literacy program in Vanuatu. I want to start my
presentation by sharing Rita's experience with literacy training in Bislama, the national
language of Vanuatu. Rita's story shows how literacy can have a powerful effect on a
woman, her family and her community.
Rita Silas is from a village in northwest Malekula. She is 40
years old She is married with 6 children. She had grown up in a bush area of Malekula and
had married a man from the same area of Amok. Rita and her husband left their village in
the bush to come to a village near the salt water called Uri. When I first met Rita in
1989 she was very shy - she was afraid to talk to me because she couldn't understand or
speak Bislama. I went to the village to start a literacy program and Rita joined the
course. She learned Bislama and it changed her life. She gained a new feeling about
herself and was able to help her children at school and also to help her community. After
she learned Bislama we could talk. Her husband also joined and became a leader in the
community and church. Rita started a PWMU group in the village. People are working well
together in the village and literacy classes are well attended. Health is another area
which has seen some very important changes, especially water and sanitation. The women
themselves built a water tank in their village.
Rita's family has now started a small business based on their
earnings from copra and cocoa. Rita has also started a business in second hand clothes and
she sells them in Norsup, which is an hour away by truck from her village. She uses the
money to pay for school fees for children - 3 are attending secondary school. Rita is a
very confident woman and community leader.
Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides, is part of the Melanesian islands
north of Australia. Vanuatu is an archipelago of some 80 islands with a land area of
12,200 square kilometres. Vanuatu is a very young nation with a new national identity. It
has a dispersed settlement pattern and a large number of languages used by a small
population. Vanuatu had been colonised by both the French and English from 1906 and gained
independence in 1980. The country is culturally and linguistically diverse. There are
approximately 150 000 people in Vanuatu and they speak more than 100 Melanesian dialects.
There are many different cultures and cultural differences within and between islands.
Some Northern and Central islands have matrilineal societies and hierarchy is based on
grade-taking in the north. The south of Vanuatu is different from the north. In Vanuatu
some leadership is based on personal achievement while others tend to be patrilineal,
hereditary and hierarchical in structure.
Missionary & colonial influence on Literacy
Literacy in the early days was a means to evangelise and establish the
church. The early missionaries used literacy to teach the people to understand their Bible
in their own languages. They trained people to read and write whatever their age group.
This system was changed when the French and the British created parallel but separate
institutions that affected all aspects of life including education.
While the lingua franca is Bislama, English and French
continue to be spoken because of the Western style formal education introduced by
Colonialists and missionaries. French and English schools still exist side by side up to
this day although the government has pushed to unify the education system. But there are
still 2 schools systems and access to formal education has been limited despite government
efforts to improve education. Today the adult literacy rate in Vanuatu is very low and it
is quite low among women especially in some islands. In the rural areas where 82 percent
of the population live, the figures are estimated to be lower.
In our literacy work we use Bislama as the main language. Although
not a traditional language, Bislama also opens the way for the preservation of traditional
culture and custom stories.
Few funds for non-formal education
The development of human resource is a national priority. Although one
of the government's objectives is to realise the potential of woman as partners and
beneficiaries of the development process, there is very little Government support for non-
formal education for adults, especially women.
The Melanesian Literacy program
The Melanesian Literacy program for which I work was designed to
address the low literacy rates in rural areas. The program was an offshoot of the
initiatives of the Presbyterian women Missionary union (PWMU) in 1989. The program was a
response to the problem raised by a women's group in North West Malekula that they could
not effectively undertake church work because they could not read, write and understand
Bislama. They had indicated their interest to form a local PWMU, but needed assistance to
communicate and assume leadership roles. In 1989 the PWMU head office in Port Vila
appointed me as Deaconess to teach them to speak Bislama and how to read and write in
Goal of the Literacy program
The long term goal of the project is to enable illiterate women &
youth in isolated areas to be literate in the national language Bislama and will use their
literacy skills to meet their personal goals.
The objectives of the project
The following are the objectives:
|select and train village volunteers as literacy trainers;
|produce and disseminate stories on culture and customs, songs, local
history, in formation on health and Nutrition and other topics useful to the village;
|to integrate Literacy work with health, agriculture and other
Educational areas to increase community understanding and benefits;
|to strengthen community organisation by effective use of meetings;
|documentation of minutes and other written materials.
The literacy program is managed by World Vision and began with assistance from the
Australian Government through its commitment to the International year of Literacy. The
program has been aimed mainly at woman in the rural villages for it was believed they
lacked opportunities for formal schooling. However, it is also recognised that everyone
has the right to become literate.
The program has been conducted in isolated areas on eight islands in
Vanuatu: Malekula, Epi, Ambrym, Tanna, Santo, Maewo, Torres and Pentecost.
The program covers the following areas and builds skills in these
areas: leading group discussion; small business skills; agriculture, nutrition;
hand-craft; cooking; writing stories; appropriate technology, critical literacy and
The rationale for a literacy program has been that:
|Literacy enhances communication, quality of life, and understanding
of their changing world;
|Non Literate adults are disadvantaged in communication outside their
areas and in economic, social and political developments especially if they know only the
|The recruitment and training of literacy enable adults in class to
become literate in Balsam and confident in understanding the changes in their world
through the integration of literacy with health and nutrition, agriculture and other
topics useful to the village life;
|Liaison with Government staff at national and at local level
especially regarding awareness raising activities.
|Involve participants in the production of custom stories, songs local
histories information on health end Nutrition and other topics useful to the village life.
Number of women attending the classes 1997-98
Positive Outcomes of the Literacy Program
The program outcomes are very encouraging. The ability to read and
write in Bislama has given access to new information, ideas and opportunities. Women have
expressed how literacy had significant effects on their lives in the following ways:
|Economic - literacy had improved their capacity to do business.
|Community and leadership- communication and cooperation within and
among villages improved, with improved knowledge and skills. Leaders were able to improve
facilitation of community activities with active participation community members in group
|Spiritual- literacy had enable women to assume leadership roles in
|Health - literacy has resulted in improvements in waste disposal,
access to safe water, improved food storage and handling, and increased knowledge in child
|Women's confidence- literacy gave women the confidence to express
their views and to speak in public. Women have also taken leadership roles and have been
actively taking part in decision making.
It was believed that to learn to read and to write is the key to new knowledge. The
women who know how to read and write discovered for themselves a new way of life.
The project was successful in achieving most of the target
objectives set. A total of 53 volunteers were recruited and trained. These trainers were
able to conduct 45 classes attended 600 or more trainees in 56 areas. (North West
Malekula, South Malekula, Middle Bush of Malekula, North Ambrym, Epi, North Tanna, West
Tanna, South Tanna, South Santo, Big Bay, Maewo, Torres, and North Pentecost).
The number of trainees has changes each year, as the woman gained
whet the wanted. Some took up leadership roles in their communities Some could speak
Bislama and migrated to the two towns Port Vila and Santo for work. Some have gone into
small business, like Rita.
The Maewo Experience
Here is the view of some members of the Literacy classes on Maewo, as
one of the WV Staff asked each one how Literacy helped them in 1996
|1. Being able to teach little children at
||1. People can follow other speakers well
|2 I can read my bible in the church
||2. Helps build cooperation among
|3. I can read with comprehension where as
before I could not comprehend anything I read
||3. Help share responsibilities and
|4. Able to write about my own feeling and
express my views
||4. Realisation of health and sanitation
|5. Access information on other subject
matters, ie., health, agriculture, nutrition etc.
||5. Helps share responsibilities within
church activities while everyone participates in community work
|6. Help me to be a leader in the community
||6. Gives a responsibility of leadership
roles to those who can attend
|7. Help me manage my family, marriage and
||7. The wife has now become the one in the
home who can write or manage her family well-being.
|8. Help me to read and write. Give
|9. I am now old and now I can read and
write. I find it has helped to record my culture and our custom.
|10. We can read newspaper and other
|11. We can sing than before.
|12. We can draw pictures better which
surprised our communities
|13. We can calculate our own vatu in
|14. I can help my kids to start a small
|15. I have written a letter for the first
time to a friend in Canada.
Literacy makes a difference for women
The project was able to produce and disseminate literacy materials on
customs, culture, health and nutrition and other topics useful to the villages, in spite
of resource limitations. Literacy materials were developed during training sessions.
Government agencies and NGOs were also tapped for resource materials on health,
agriculture end environment. Subject matters on hearth, agriculture and other areas of
interest were integrated into literacy work whenever possible. Integration was only
possible as far as learning materials were available and trainers had the capacity to
handle a diverse range of subject matters.
Literacy had also led to improvement in community organisations by
enhancing leaders' skills and encouraging them to be more open to active participation
There are some important changes in the life of the community where
there are literacy classes operating. I have observed the following changes in some
|Before the men let their wives to do all the work in the house but
today they share responsibilities.
|Before the men used to beat their wives but today, they have family
worships together in the family.
|Before only young boys played sport. Today everyone, old and young
men and women play sport together.
|Before only Father & catechist shared in worship, today they
share the responsibilities with all their members including women
|Before, they didn't know how to change vatu Today many run small
Many villages are improved in terms of many good houses built and some have learned to
make smokeless stove. Some have water tanks for clean water. Many take part in decision
making in their homes and communities; some have chance of taking up leadership roles in
their communities. They have formed themselves groups to work together, in order to
strengthen themselves spiritually, socially, physically, and mentally.
One of the most important things is that these women want to do
outreach in other areas. They know how to read and write and they have confidence to
convince others about what they know and what they can do.
We believe that if all the women are literate the whole community will
change for the better. When a woman is literate there is a change in a family which
enables the family to play active part in community development process. Most of all there
is a change in the woman giving her a feeling of hope and achievement.
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