Emalus Library Online Documents Collection - Vanuatu


Enikelen Netine
World Vision
Port Vila, Vanuatu

Source:  Women, Christians, Citizens: Being Female in Melanesia Today, Oceanic-Whitehall Guesthouse, Sorrento, Victoria
11-13 November 1998;

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 Bislama.

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:

bulletselect and train village volunteers as literacy trainers;
bulletproduce and disseminate stories on culture and customs, songs, local history, in formation on health and Nutrition and other topics useful to the village;
bulletto integrate Literacy work with health, agriculture and other Educational areas to increase community understanding and benefits;
bulletto strengthen community organisation by effective use of meetings;
bulletdocumentation 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 translation.

The rationale for a literacy program has been that:

bulletLiteracy enhances communication, quality of life, and understanding of their changing world;
bulletNon Literate adults are disadvantaged in communication outside their areas and in economic, social and political developments especially if they know only the local language;
bulletThe 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;
bulletLiaison with Government staff at national and at local level especially regarding awareness raising activities.
bulletInvolve 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

Island Supervisor Man Woman Total Class
Malekula Setline J 9 36 45 3
Ambrym Ansen 6 15 21 2
Epi Rambong 20 30 59 5
Tanna James Daniel 30 98 128 5
Tanna Jimmy 1 92 93 5
Santo Manuel P 12 30 42 5
Santo Matarua I 15 21 36 5
Maewo Anika 30 40 70 5
Torres Rosalyn A 20 40 60 5
Pentecost Willie L 20 30 50 5
Total       595 45

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:

bulletEconomic - literacy had improved their capacity to do business.
bulletCommunity 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 processes.
bulletSpiritual- literacy had enable women to assume leadership roles in the church.
bulletHealth - literacy has resulted in improvements in waste disposal, access to safe water, improved food storage and handling, and increased knowledge in child health care.
bulletWomen'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

Individual/Outcome Community's strength
1. Being able to teach little children at Pre School 1. People can follow other speakers well
2 I can read my bible in the church 2. Helps build cooperation among communities
3. I can read with comprehension where as before I could not comprehend anything I read 3. Help share responsibilities and leadership roles
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 income 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 confidence  
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 information materials.  
11. We can sing than before.  
12. We can draw pictures better which surprised our communities  
13. We can calculate our own vatu in stories  
14. I can help my kids to start a small business  
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 among villagers.

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 villages.

bulletBefore the men let their wives to do all the work in the house but today they share responsibilities.
bulletBefore the men used to beat their wives but today, they have family worships together in the family.
bulletBefore only young boys played sport. Today everyone, old and young men and women play sport together.
bulletBefore only Father & catechist shared in worship, today they share the responsibilities with all their members including women
bulletBefore, they didn't know how to change vatu Today many run small business shops.


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.

Women outreach
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.
[ Last updated: 10 July 2000]
Copyright 1999 by Enikelen Netine
Comments pertaining to the content of this site should be directed to Monica Wehner

[Library Home] | [USP Law Home]
Last Updated on: Monday, 16 July 2007