What Does it Mean to be a Feminist in Vanuatu?

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls
Posted May 19, 2019 from Fiji

Vanuatu feminist Grace Mere Molisa was ahead of her time and continues to influence and inspire a new wave of feminism in Vanuatu.

In a panel discussion titled “What does it mean to be a feminist in Vanuatu” at the Pacific Feminist Forum underway in Fiji, we were reminded that the realisation of gender equality means addressing the imbalances in decision making including as members of parliament, addressing root causes of violence and high levels of teenage pregnancies.

So how are women working to reclaim and build on the feminist activism legacy of Grace Molisa and other women who led the independent movement. Vanuatu became independent in 1980.

The viewpoints from CARE Vanuatu, Sista, Vanuatu Human Rights Coalition, V-Pride brought attention to programmes being undertaken to eliminate violence against women and girls through leadership programmes, information sharing on access to justice as well as providing service referrals:

“We face challenges in the south and north where women are stopped from accessing health services including information. They need to seek permission first from their boyfriends or husbands. That means we have to provide information to empower them” said a representative of CARE.

“In Vanuatu a single woman dealing with pregnancy can expect 1000 vatu a week (FJD20) as child welfare” – this is one reason why we need women in decision making says Yasmine Bjornum the founder of Sista, “I got the support, how many ni-Vanuatu girls did not get the support”.

It was easier, she said, because she does not face the traditional pressures of indigenous women which require them to conform to gender norms “it’s a tough place to be because you don’t want to be seen as disrespectful”.

The LGBT activism priorities focus on human rights education says Peter, particularly with the prevalence of homophobia, discrimination and lack of services and employment opportunities.   

“Feminism runs in my blood” as a chief and preacher’s daughter says Anne Pakoa who explained the internal and external challenges facing the movement.

In 2020, Vanuatu goes to the polls again and this is a time to bring young women’s viewpoints and perspectives in the political process. This is why, there is a need to bring feminist practice into the conversation and programmes on gender equality to address the kustom and religious barriers.

So what is the way forward?

Since 1980 there have only been 5 women elected into parliament and they were supported by the Chiefs and church leaders says Pakoa, and there is therefore a need to strengthen engagement with the chiefs to support young women’s initiatives and leadership.

This is one of the programmes of the Vanuatu Young Women for Change said Pakoa which developed as a result of the GPPAC Pacific network and the work on localising the gender inclusive conflict prevention and human security strategy of the regional network including localisation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (Women, Peace and Security):

“We provided training for the chiefs. We did not provide kava or pigs. The 18 chiefs are assigned to work with the young women and plan their political engagement”.

Invest in the strengthening of the National Council of Women to be inclusive and to work towards reaching the 50-50 aspirational goals of women in parliament in the longer term and work on building solidarity and working to amplify voice said Bjornum.

Maryanne Bani, highlighted a challenge that while the Vanuatu Government has committed to reserve seats for women, there is a need to clarify why women are also discussing the formation of a women’s political party.  

As one of the workshop participants reflected, there is a need to learn from the process of negotiating through kustom and faith structures across Melanesia.

Comments 5

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Jill Langhus
May 20
May 20

Hi Sharon,

Thanks for this update, too. It sounds to me like some progress has already been made in Vanuatu for women, but it sounds like the 2020 election could be a turning point for women there. It will be interesting to see what transpires since that's just around the corner.

Tamarack Verrall
May 20
May 20

Hi Sharon,
This is good news, it seems there is strong leadership by women who understand how deeply the root that is needed to grow this equality, needs to be nurtured in a direction that brings the respect and leadership of women that is so sorely lacking in all of our countries. I am glad to see that there is alliance between communities with for example the LGBT community. I hope that your work to engage Chiefs and Church leaders is going smoothly. Here in my country indigenous women in many communities have always been respected as traditional leaders. It is so encouraging to learn of the work of the National Council of Women towards reaching the 50-50 goal of women in parliament, and to ending violence against women.
All the best with your work,

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls

Thanks Tam!

May 20
May 20

Oh my dear, I can imagine what these women might have been going through. Its like you are thirsty of water but you have to seek permission to go drink the water. Eeeiii! Thanks for sharing this amazing story and I hope your organization is able to help these women going forward.

Hello, Sharon,

I agree that we need women decision makers. Thanks for the update.
We are cheering for you as you reach for your goals.