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Women Speak Out! A Report of the Pacific Women's Conference. October 27 – November 2

Gilbert Islands

Gilbert Islands

Family life was a strongly organised social institution in the Gilbert Islands long before the arrival of Christianity. Woman was the companion of man and not his slave. She was not subjected to tasks beyond her strength but was expected to perform ordinary household duties besides helping her husband in certain kinds of fishing, in the cultivation of taro and the building and maintenance of dwellings.

She wove strings from coconut fibre for construction of canoe and house buildings; skirts, the only wearing apparel, she fashioned from coconut leaves for all the family. Bedding mats and baskets she dexterously wove in intricate designs from pandanus leaves. Her usual household chores would have consisted of collecting firewood for cooking purposes. As there would have been no cooking utensils, all food had to be either baked or grilled. Toddy was converted into molasses by being boiled in coconut shells on hot stones. All this would have taken up most of a housewife's day. With the extended family system, she would have had helpers, as old women could have done many of these tasks.

Unlike many other cultures, a girl was not purchased from parents by prospective husbands. She had her share of family inheritance, although less than a son's share. An only daughter inherited not only land but also whatever particular skills her father possessed - even navigation. Women were mostly well treated by their husbands except when these were of a jealous nature (which was quite common). Then the wife had very little freedom and could not assist at any social gathering. Young girls were subject to very strict supervision and could not go anywhere alone.

In spite of all this, women were (and still are) regarded as inferior to men. On no account must she stand up to address an assembly in the ‘maneaba’ (meeting house), but must sit meekly behind the elders in the first rank. Walking along the road she usually kept a few paces behind her man.

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When education was introduced by the missionaries, it was thought to be only for boys; girls had no need of it. It was a long struggle to convince parents to send girls to school, but they were quite happy and even anxious to let them be in boarding school with the missionaries as they knew they would be safeguarded. So long as they were taught to weave mats, etc., it did not matter what they learnt academically.

Even after 1945, no woman went to secondary school or held any position other than that in the home. When the Medical Department first started to train nurses, this was frowned upon by most parents and it took time to be accepted. Another stumbling block later on was co-education in secondary schools and teacher training, but this too has been successfully overcome and today we have a woman Minister in the House of Assembly, a woman doctor, many trained nurses, religious sisters, female teachers, radio announcers, typists clerks etc.