Emalus Library Online Documents Collection - Vanuatu


Voice of Vanuatu's women

Source: Voice of Vanuatu's women  ( The Australian )
Mary Louise O'Callaghan;
02-01-2002 (Obituaries) pp.010

Obituary Grace Mera Molisa

Educator, activist and poet.

Born North Ambae, Vanuatu, February 17, 1946.

Died, Port Vila, January 4, aged 55.

LIKE her young nation, Grace Mera Molisa was a complex, formidable yet ultimately vibrantly creative product of Vanuatu's deep tribal customs and troubled colonial past.


Highly political yet a faith-filled Anglican with a deep respect for her indigenous heritage and fluent in five languages, Molisa throughout her life stood as a vanguard for Melanesian culture and a voice of the ni-Vanuatu (the nation's indigenous people), especially women.


She was not afraid of treading on toes or the opprobrium this sometimes brought, but nor was she content to simply draw attention to problems without summoning up and attempting to implement possible solutions.


The first woman in her country -- formerly known as New Hebrides and jointly administered by the French and British -- to gain a university degree, Molisa did not squander the opportunities she'd been given, nor simply use them to build a career.


She once said: ``The only way forward for women in a largely pre- literate society is for those who have been upwardly mobile to help others.''


Initially trained at Auckland Teachers College, after graduating from Queen Victoria School in 1965, Molisa's professional life began as an educator, when she returned in 1967 to her alma mater, St Anne' s School, Torgil, to teach on her home island of Ambae.


Before attending St Anne's at age 10, Molisa had learned to read and write in her mother tongue at the local boys school, in what was probably one of the earliest indications that there would be few barriers that Grace Mera, as she was known then, wouldn't manage to leap over or crash through in her life.


In later years she became adept at using her imposing personality and considerable standing within Vanuatu's political elite to compel foreign diplomats to cough up some of their precious aid funds for her current cause.


In 1977 she completed a bachelor of arts degree at the University of the South Pacific. This was in the lead-up to Vanuatu's independence, and by 1979 -- now holding the post of second secretary of the Ministry of Social Affairs -- the thirtysomething Molisa had become heavily involved in the life of her nation.


She set up the first National Arts Festival as well as the committee that chose the new nation's flag, anthem, national motto -- Long God Yumi Standup -- and coat of arms.


The first woman to address the then all-powerful Vanua'aku Pati Congress, she was one of only two women members of the National Constitution Committee. In 1976 she aligned herself with another upcoming ni-Vanuatu, marrying the young politician from Santo, Sela Molisa. In what may be a world first, they were both signatories to the new Constitution of the Republic of Vanuatu when it was promulgated in 1979.


Molisa's political influence was probably highest in the first decade after independence; these were the heady days of prime minister Walter Lini's rule, when anything seemed possible for the unaligned South Pacific nation and the ruling Vanua'aku Pati.


Molisa spent these years in the prime minister's office, first as second secretary and then, from 1987, when Lini suffered a stroke, as the prime minister's private secretary and virtual mouthpiece.


In 1991, when he lost office and the Vanua'aku Pati suffered a bitter split, Molisa moved on but, unlike some contemporaries, did not let the bitterness consume her.


Nearly a decade earlier, in 1983, she had launched herself -- somewhat by accident, she later admitted -- as a poet.


Blackstone was the title of her first collection of poems and it became the name of the publishing company she was to form in 1991. Her poems were a biting social commentary on life in patriarchal, post-colonial Vanuatu.


But her literary ventures were just a small part of a busy life that flourished in the '90s. Apart from her constant political activism, it also included appointments to the Council of the University of the South Pacific and membership of the anti-corruption body Transparency International. In 1997, Molisa's persistent efforts on behalf of ni- Vanuatu women resulted in her founding the pressure group Vanuatu Women in Politics, to support and promote women willing to enter politics in Vanuatu.


This was partly prompted by the sad fact that no political party, including her own VP, had endorsed any women candidates for the 1998 general election. Molisa quit the VP and helped organise six female candidates under the VWIP banner.


``None of the women won, but we made people talk because we bucked the entire system,'' she said. ``And while most of the talk was negative, the people knew they could not dismiss us. They knew what we were standing for was valid.''


In 1998 Molisa also grew impatient when the government of the day embarked on what was known as the Comprehensive Reform Program, but excluded women from any of the new appointments. Weary of the excuse offered -- there were no qualified women available in Vanuatu -- Molisa compiled and published Women's Appointments Files, a booklet providing a comprehensive listing of 530 ni-Vanuatu women willing and qualified to take on public duties. This was followed in 1999 by another book with a broader reach, Human Rights Toksave. Her final book is currently with the proofreaders.


Shortly before her death, Molisa, who had just completed a two-year post as president of the National Council of Women, was preparing to gear up the VWIP group again for this year's national elections.


``There are too few women in politics, and those who get in often lack support once they are there,'' she once said.


``We need more women because if they and their children face difficulties, then mothers must be where the decisions are made.''


Ironically -- and largely due to her own fearless leadership -- Molisa was also able to declare that although women were not represented in parliament, the voice of ni-Vanuatu women was still being heard ``loud and clear''.


``In one way, we are doing better outside parliament. We are working with the ombudsman, Vanuatu Christian Council and National Council of Chiefs in political awareness raising, legal literacy and gender training,'' she said of VWIP.


``Women have stayed away from public life, perhaps because of lack of confidence. But confidence is gained through attempting, doing, having failures and successes and building on the successes,'' Molisa said, in what could have been a summation of her own life.


Raised an Anglican but married to a Presbyterian, Molisa felt free to worship in either church, dealing with religion as she did with most things -- cutting to the core of the matter and making no secret of the strength her faith gave her.


It was a gift that, according to her firstborn, Viran Molisa, she managed to pass on to her three children, and upon which they have drawn in the weeks following her unexpected death.


Open, articulate and educated, her three children are also a testimony to Molisa's other main commitment: her life as the mother and provider to a large, extended Pacific family, and as the wife of a national politician; her husband has held many portfolios during a long career in politics and is now Minister of Lands. All three of their children have been educated overseas.


Gardening was Molisa's largely unknown source of relaxation and although she suffered from diabetes for more than 20 years, she never let this illness deter her from an active life.


A measure of Grace Molisa's standing in her nation can be taken from the elaborate and lengthy mourning ceremonies and tributes that spanned five days and three provinces -- from her untimely death at the age of 55 on January 4 in a Port Vila hospital, to when she was finally laid to rest in the grounds of her family's home on Santo, in her husband's village of Wunpuko.


Molisa's body lay in state in the Nakamal (meeting house) of Vanuatu' s Great Council of Chiefs, where for 6 1/2 hours the nation's chiefs and women leaders paid tribute to her extraordinary efforts on behalf of her nation, her people and her sex.


The following day, her immediate family accompanied her body to Ambae, where she again lay in state in the chiefs' Nakamal. Then, in recognition of the hard work she had put into improving the lot of women throughout the country, her body was taken to the Santo Rural Women's Resource Centre.


Only opened last year by New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff, the centre was the achievement of a long-held ambition of Molisa's, who had planned for it to be the first of many such centres for the country's rural women -- who, as she never hesitated to point out, bore on a daily basis the heaviest burden of providing for the nation. Official mourning will continue for 100 days.


Grace Molisa is survived by her husband and their daughter Viran, a lawyer, 24, and two sons, Pala, 22, and Vatumaraga, 18, all of whom are likely to be prominent in Molisa's considerable legacy to her young nation.

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