Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Women, Development and Empowerment: A Pacific Feminist Perspective


page 102


It would be impossible to cover all the issues that emerged in a day's “journey” to discovering Pacific women's realities and their views on what was wrong and what needed changing. What is summarised here are the issues that were discussed at greatest length and the areas of conflicting opinions. The Pacific feminist perspective that emerged, and which was generally agreed to by the workshop, is presented in full, under the workshop's title: “Our Vision”.

Black and white photograph of women in traditional dress.

The Family

Women lived alongside men in the family, the extended family was a common structure, women sometimes had to be both mother and father in the family; there were some tasks that were done only by women.

page 103

It was recognised women had most responsibilities for child rearing; men did not get involved (and were not expected to) in child care. Some participants were uneasy, feeling that critical views of the family were Western-oriented and did not recognise Pacific cultural differences. It was observed however, that regardless of cultural setting, the expectations of women as mothers, were strictly defined: in all cultures women were expected to fulfil obligations to their children first. Men, on the other hand, could choose whether or not to take responsibility, for example, when a child was sick. If a mother was absent, other women took over her child care tasks of feeding baby, changing clothing, etc. This happened whether it was in the village or in an urban setting. In the urban setting, though, men (eg a grandfather) might be asked to mind a child while a woman worked, but he would not be expected to know what to feed the child, etc. Whether women were mothers or not, they were expected to know how to care for children:

I have never been a mother, but I am certainly expected to know how to be a keeper of children, yet my brother is not expected to know about children at all.

One suggestion for looking at the reality for women in the family was to list all the things that could only be done by women and the things women are supposed to do. The list of things that only women can do is short: women bear children, and only women can breastfeed. The other activities women did could be done by men or women but were done by women because it is part of their role. Roles and experiences can vary for individual women, and in different families. Women's realities were complex, and similar also, in many ways. The discussion was directed at drawing out the general pattern of reality for women in the family:

Main points raised about the family:

  • women are given a specific role in families as wives and mothers

  • women are not expected to be heads of households

    page 104
  • there are other divisions in families, for example, there are rankings according to caste or status

  • there are different levels of privilege within society; between families, within families and between women. For example, women who came from better off families can pass on their housework to less privileged women, who were used as housemaids, child minders, and these women were paid or lived in the family and were not paid

  • there was disagreement expressed over whether oppression existed in all families

  • Questions were raised on the role of wife, and on the pressures placed on women within marriage to have children

Questions of Class or Privilege

This issue was debated quite heatedly. One participant expressed the view that women who appeared privileged (by wealth, education) often worked hard to gain that position and therefore were entitled to the privileges they earned. She argued that traditionally, chiefly women/or men, or people from wealthy families, were given added responsibilities to provide food and money for others during periods of crisis or for family and village events. In the Pacific, these were accepted ways of distributing wealth and having wealth also often involved person in a lot of community or family obligations.

It was felt that one danger in agreeing with this view was that it implied people who were poor were in that position because they had not worked hard, or were lazy. Yet privilege often stayed within families; many people could not even climb out of poverty because of constraints of unemployment and the lack of land, lack of housing, lack of money for food/education/training that they experience as individuals and as families. Unequal conditions in society can perpetuate differences in wealth between groups of people, between individuals, between men and women, between families and within families.

page 105

Violence in the Family

A general reality for many women is violence in the family. Women are not protected by society or the community. Violence in the home is regarded as a “personal matter” and no one intervenes. Women, if organised, could help and support each other and raise objections to violence. Women themselves were sometimes violent towards members of their families, it was also acknowledged. Drunkenness on the part of the husband was a common feature of acts of violence against women. Women were attacked for “talking back” or beaten because of a husband's frustration with someone else - his boss or his brother, for example.


Many comments were made on the sexist content of children's books, separate subjects being taught to boys and girls in schools, the irrelevance of some school curricula in providing knowledge to meet the everyday needs of people's lives. Women needed to be taught skills and to acquire knowledge of their choice - which meant a much wider range of information than was generally available. A woman's gender did affect what she could learn traditionally and in the school system.

Black and white photograph of children reading in the classroom.

page 106

Education, formal and informal, tended to reinforce women's roles. In traditional society, some areas of knowledge eg. traditional medicine, were only held by men, yet women were expected to care for children when they were sick. Some aspects of agriculture and fishing were other areas of traditional knowledge kept exclusive to men.

In a family, when choices were made on which children should go on in the formal school system, girls were discriminated against. If money was scarce, girls were pulled out of school first. One participant disagreed, and said that girls were supported in school by their families if they did well; it was regarded as an investment for girls to give them an education because girls were more likely to take care of their parents later. Married women were sometimes discriminated against in government or in private employment, by not being given study grants; and women were expected to follow their husband's career rather than the other way around, when public service training, appointments or scholarships were decided.


It was agreed that religion provided some of the sterotypes and restricting images of women. Women were expected to be pure or had to confine themselves to certain areas and avoid certain foods, according to the beliefs of many religions. Some disagreement was expressed over Christianity and its effects on traditional societies and traditional religion. The Christian faith, one participant noted, had strong strictures on wives being faithful and obedient; women in some churches also had to sit in places separate from the men. She added an interesting observation on the effect the missions had on women's role:

Somehow, I believe that the whole idea of having a woman do the housework was invented by the missionaries. At home, traditionally, a man knew what his role was and a woman knew what her role was. When the missionaries came, they took the men away to train them, and the women page 107 were left with all the responsibilities. Before that, the wife who cooked and did everything in the house, taught the men to cook and serve. The responsibility that used to be shared by a man and a woman had to be disrupted when the man was taken away by the missions.

A view following on this remark was that what is now called “traditional” - in the family and “traditional” society - are roles and responsibilities influenced by the missionaries and colonial contact. The missions had also been exploitative, and in some cases continued to extract work and money from the people. The church also changed the traditional concepts of marriage, institutionalising it, so marriage now took place in the church, where men and women were taught their roles.

Black and white drawing of a woman cooking.

What is Traditional?

The discussion then moved to a debate on what was “traditional”, and on the need to be clear-eyed over traditions that might in fact have been introduced by colonialism. Many traditional practices were detrimented to women. It was generally accepted that in the Pacific it was difficult to talk of culture before European settlement in the Pacific, because European contact had intervened so much with the traditional way of life. The question of religion and its influence on women was also raised. It was recognised that many women in the Pacific are Christian and very involved in church activities.

page 108

The Economy

Women do not have control over resources and how they are allocated. A lenghty discussion on women's economic contribution followed when one participant suggested that women demand payment of some of the nation's gross domestic product (GNP) for the unpaid work that women did in the home and in subsistence agriculture. It was noted that women's projects were often not provided with resources by governments because they were thought to contribute little of economic value to the nation. Women's considerable contribution to food production was not recognised. In Kanaky, the liberation movement hoped to change the economic system to one that served all of the community. In other Pacific countries, development that supported private enterprise and foreign business had not resulted in benefits “trickling down” to the people. Resources tended to be allocated by government to those groups and sectors that had resources to invest.

The workshop emphasised the need for women to be economically independent; most women were powerless to change conditions in their lives because they were economically dependent. Collective economic enterprises were preferred methods of self-help and self-sufficiency. Women's lack of participation in development planning - the experience of many other powerless groups - meant they had no choice over the kind of economic development that took place.

The idea of “collectivity” or a collective effort in economic production as opposed to individual effort and enterprise, was not fully accepted by some participants who felt that this view was of a dream society that could never exist, unless collectivity was enforced by the state or government, a method some participants disagreed with. Questions of individual privilege and wealth were again raised and defended by some participants as an alternative view. Generally, the workshop was supportive of collective efforts that emphasised community well-being rather than individual development and progress. This issue of economic benefits and individual effort was unresolved, however, and some participants felt it needed further debate.

page 109

The Environment

This was broadly defined as the physical environment (natural resources such as land, water, etc) and the total social environment, (political structures, power relationships, decision-making), which affected use of the physical environment and resources. On questions of political power, it was agreed that women did have power in Pacific societies when they were consulted before decisions were made, on land for example. The workshop debated whether this was real power or influence – some participants thought that traditional relationships between men and women were misinterpreted by outsiders; other thought that though women were consulted in decision making, this did not constitute real power if women were not given responsibility for the final decision. The statement sometimes made about how women had power in traditional societies, was compared by one participant to a male politician proudly stating he had a good wife behind him, yet he remained the person holding the position and making decisions! Until women had an equal say, it was argued, women did not have equal power in traditional or modern society. Participants' views produced a useful exchange on experiences of women in decision-making in the village.

Black and white image of a tree.

On Women's Traditional Power

If it concerns a village issue, then a woman has to be consulted at home. On the land issue, the man discusses questions with his mother and also has to consult all the sisters, before he makes a decision.

page 110

We are landowners too, we have a right to land. But, do men consult women on all other issues? If it is a discussion on the home, I can see in my village that the man will go and talk it out with the women. But, if it is a question about a road, where a road should lie in the village, they ignore us women. If it is a question of agricultural technology, they won't consult us.

I think women in the village play a big part in everything because they can always choose, for instance, where a road should go. If women are really against it, they can stand up to that. I am sure there is nothing to stop us.

Question: But do they?

Answer: Yes, they do. It is through their husbands that they have a say.

The last comment perhaps revealed more clearly than any debate how little power women have, even if they are consulted traditionally. This led the debate back to questions of what was and was not, traditional society, and questions of direct and indirect power held by women. The issue was brought sharply back into focus by a participant remarking:

We all agree that in the traditional context women may have wielded power and continue to wield power in informal ways and in some cultures, in formal ways. When it comes to modern politics, the formal structures is controlled basically by men.

We keep referring back to what our traditions are, but if it is not a reality today, there is no point in talking about that tradition. I am very anxious that we do not over-defend our traditions. What are the present structures that are part of our reality, and what is women's position in these structures? That is important.

page 111

The workshop's collective sharing of views was used to arrive at a “framework for the changes and ideals that women would like to see in the future”. The changes Pacific women wanted were then used as a basis for formulating strategies in the final session of the workshop. Below is the framework - or feminist vision - arrived at by the workshop, in its session on defining Pacific feminism.