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

Cook Islands

Cook Islands

From the time they were small babies, children were taught how to behave towards their brothers and sisters. Female children had to observe certain restrictions on their behaviour towards their brothers - they were not allowed to step on his sleeping mat, or dance with him in a traditional dance, and could not kiss his face but rather his hand, as a sign of respect. They had special forms of address for their brothers alone. Females could not appear partially undressed in front of their brothers. Males were also taught to respect their sisters, and could not swear in front of them. These observances were reinforcement to the strong incest taboos.

The first born child in the family, especially if it was a boy, occupied a privileged position in the family. He had to stay with the father and learn the management of the household. His younger brothers and sisters were taught to obey the first born in all family matters since the knowledge of the family's genealogy and lands was passed to him. He was also the teller of special family traditional stories. page 11 The first born child would inherit the chiefly title and control the management of family lands.

The head of the household was the father. It was his responsibility to provide for the family. There was a definitive division of labour; only men did the fishing beyond the reef and women fished within the lagoon. On land the men were the hunters and gatherers and the women made mats, etc., and looked after the children at home. With the coming of Christianity, the belief that the man had authority over the woman was reinforced.

However, the changes in economic life, caused changes in the division of labour and women became slightly more independent. Both sexes participated in planting, men working on the land, and both sexes planting and harvesting. This division of labour still exists today. After contact with Europeans, the Cook Islanders noticed the greater independence of European women and the fact that the head of their country was a woman, Queen Victoria. Women began to succeed to chiefly titles, following the European example.

Many women in the Cook Islands now hold chiefly titles, for example, of the 23 Paramount chiefs (the Independent chief or “Mataiapo”), 7 are women. One is here at this conference - Poko Ingram - who is also the President and founder of the Cook Islands Women's Association formerly known as the Democratic Women's Association.

Women had been important in making alliances between tribal groups but an examination of traditional stories does not reveal women as decision makers or leaders, but as desirable marriage partners, childbearers or the cause of disputes over their favours.

Today, women are valued not only for their ability to bear children, but also, with the introduction of a new economic system, as wage earners. Children can claim land from both their mother and father and men can work their wife's land. Marriage is also a way of acquiring more land. Within the home, the husband still remains the decision maker, and in some cases this is necessary, while in other cases, women page 12 have also become the decision makers. Though women are regarded as chief planners of the family and household affairs, and have considerable say, many would find it difficult to accept positions of responsibility because they are so accustomed to accepting male leadership.

As women are starting work, and sometimes are earning as much as their husbands, they are now realising the independence that money brings. However, generally, girls are not expected to plan a career of their own as it is assumed they will be having children for most of the time between the age of 20–40, when women are tied to the home. As their children grow up and begin to help with child-minding and housework, and later earn wages, women assume more authority in the home In middle age, when children no longer have to be watched over, these women want to go out and work. It is at this time in her life that a woman begins to be independent.