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

On the family and traditional culture

Black and white photograph of a Pacific Island houses.Black and white photograph of a mother and child standing in a stream.Black and white photograph of a Pacific beach.page 1 On the family and traditional culture

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Gilbert Islands

In the Gilberts, we have in a family a father, mother and five or six children. The father's duty is to see that his family is safe and to fish, cut copra etc. The mother's duties include carrying all the family's worries. She must look after the whole family. She sees that there is enough food to eat, she does the washing, and other housework, and she even goes out fishing or out to the bush.

Each family has a history and it is the duty of a son and a daughter to learn from their grandparents and also to know that relations are very important in everything. It is important that the children know their relatives so as to prevent them from falling in love with their relatives.

Arranged marriage is one of our strong customs. All parents choose their children's partners. They choose someone who has a good background, someone who has a small family, and someone who is a hardworking boy or girl.

And now let me talk about women.

Before there was no place for women to go and talk. They used to just listen to the men talking. The women in olden days were not very important. They were told to just be happy, eat, and enjoy what they have.

Women were not allowed to talk, but nowadays we know that most of the women in the Gilberts go to school and there are members of the House, members of Councils, and in government departments some of our women are working there. Now the government is trying to help our women by breaking down some of the culture. There is the Health and Welfare section which is divided into the Family Planning, Health Education, and Women's Clubs – all of which deal with page 2 culture and family traditions.


A family in Europe would mean just a mother, a father and the children. In Tonga a family is really what we call ‘toto’, those connected by blood. ‘Toto’, when literally translated, means ‘blood’ and it is ‘blood’ connection. Europeans have brothers, sisters, cousins, second cousins, and so on. But we have only brothers and sisters. ‘Brother’ is our brother with the same mother and father, and then this is extended to our cousins.

In the family, the head is the father. The mother is the go-between. When the children want something, if they do something wrong, the mother explains all this to the father.

Above that is the ‘mehikitaga’, the father's sister. In Tongan families the status of a woman is very high because the ‘mehikitaga’ is much respected in her family. Although she pays respect to her brother, to his children she is really much further up. We say that the father is the lord of the family but the ‘mehikitaga’ is the overlord of the family.

Women have duties - they keep the home, they are the hostesses to the people who come in, such as the men coming to meet the husband and talk around the kava ceremony, or to talk business. Also there are young men who come in to court her daughter/s, and the women prepares for all these things.

But even though she has high status in the family, the woman generally retires and does not join in the discussions. It is not compulsory - it is part of the ceremony. She prepares to retire to her weaving and draws the curtains behind her and leaves her husband to the discussions.

Because of traditions our women were rather like decorations for the house, not really useful. They were almost unable to do things. Before our women never went into the page 3 fields. Now we help our men. Before, all the cooking our women did were done in the house. We wrapped things up and our men carried them out and put them in the umu.

Our culture is taught to the children through the talatala-i-fale, a kind of family council within the house, where the mother and father tell their children one aspect of traditional culture - how to appear in public, how to make tapa etc. This was so in the past but nowadays, this generation, prefers to go out dancing, rather than to sit down for a ‘talatala-i-fale’.

New Caledonia

The woman as the life-source of the clan in the pre-colonial Kanak system

Life in traditional Kanak society rested on two fundamental bases: the women who produces the child, and the land which feeds the tribe. Thus there is an identification between the women and the land, as in many societies - they are both sources of life, and they both have a reproductive function. A sterile woman is an arid land - they were the same in the eyes of the Kanak people in pre-colonial times.

The woman's task, then, was to produce children for her husband, to bring up her sons to the age of adolescence, when ritual forced them to leave their paternal roof for the house reserved for young bachelors. As for her daughters, the woman had to look after them up to the day of their marriage. In addition to her reproductive function, and her role as educator, the woman maintained the plantation and did all the household duties.

As for all Kanak people in the traditional society, the life of the Kanak woman did not belong to herself, but belonged to the community, whether the society was seen in terms of the family, the tribe, or the whole group. Her education, her actions, her work, were carried out as a function of the group of which she was a member. In fact, she didn't exist as an individual but always as an inseparable part of the whole which makes up the tribal community.

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As a source of life of the tribes in the society, she submitted to the prohibitions which regulated and stabilised that society. Some examples of these prohibitions on Kanak women:
  • she had to bow in front of men, give them right of way, humble herself before them;

  • she could neither approach the chief nor speak to him, nor allow herself to be seen by him. She had to adopt the same attitude in regard to her brother and her maternal uncle;

  • she could not participate in the meetings of the Council of Elders which revolved around the chief and which made all the important decisions for the tribe.

The education of the Kanak woman in traditional society was solely designed to make her a mother, a woman capable of producing children, above all else. By her marriage, always outside her paternal clan, she guaranteed alliances between groups and perpetuated the life of these groups.

Solomon Islands

A woman is never independent from the time she is single and through marriage, and in some cases the woman does not own land or property or even home; nor does she have a say in the upbringing or children. The widows in the male-orientated societies very often in the past had to walk to their graves and be buried alive, particularly if their husbands were bigmen, and this shows the extreme attitude of men in our society, despite the powers possessed by our women in land dealings and the trusteeship of children. At least some more enlightened areas allowed the poor woman to go back home to her own people, which even today is not permitted in all our islands.

New Hebrides

What is the position of a woman in the village? According to New Hebridean custom, a woman's place is always in page 5
Black and white photograph of a woman at work.

In Tonga women have traditional duties but when visitors came women generally retire.

Black and white photograph of women at work. page 6
Black and white photograph of a woman in traditional dress.

“A woman is never independent from the time she is single and through marriage.” (Solomon Islands)

page 7 the home. She is there to look after the children, prepare food and all the domestic stuff. When a girl is born into the family she's automatically trained to be in the home with the mother and to help out on domestic work, and from then up to now, whenever a baby girl is born, fathers are usually sad and cross because they would rather have a boy so that he can follow the footsteps of the father. They reckon that when the girl grows up she won't be able to do what the man can. (But if they were here today, they would see the difference!) Decisions by any mothers in the home are always finalised by the father. For example, I told you about the two different systems of education, so we have British and French schools. Here then, the father decides which child is to attend which school. The mother has no say, because she has no power over her husband or they might differ.

New Zealand

In early times, the woman's place was always in the home. She was the mother and the homemaker. Traditionally, our women did not speak out on anything; it was always the woman's place to be the cook for the family. The woman had to be sure that the cupboard was full, that hospitality was extended to anyone and everyone who may knock on her door. Also it was very much an extended family group so that it was not only her little family that she was concerned with, but the community as a whole. We used to live mainly in communal groups in the country areas.

However, this has changed a great deal. Nowadays, the majority of our people, because of employment, are moving into the cities to live and to work. We tend to lose the community spirit that we had in the country areas.

In some areas, traditionally, women are not permitted to speak on our maraes. In other areas, they are allowed to speak. But usually, it is the man who does the speaking and women do not speak on the marae. But in the city areas, women are now speaking up more than they used to.

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New Zealand

Women in an urban situation

The role of the Pacific woman in New Zealand, to me, at the moment is very, very insignificant at regional and international level. At the grassroots level, which is the Pacific Islands community which embraces the Samoan community, the Tokelauan community, the Niuean community, the Cook Islands community, the Fijian community - the women folk are certainly very strong, very vocal, especially within their church groups and within their women's organisations. In fact, the women are the only ones who do anything at all to help each other.

It's the woman's role (to me it's very important) within the community to cope with seeing children off to school. Some of them work at two o'clock in the morning - they get up, they go to their part-time jobs, they come back home at half-past seven, they prepare the children for school, and see them off. Then some of them go off to another part-time job or a full-time job, in trying to help the family budget. In a city like Wellington, men's wage-rates are up to $200.00 a week, rent of a house is up to $60.00 a week. Clothing, (well, I'll just name a few garments that you put on) - a coat is nothing below $60.00, unless you go to a sale then you'll be lucky to get something under $30.00 or unless you go to a Bazaar then you might be lucky to get something really cheap. But of course, being proud women of the Pacific, we want nothing but the best. Food: for $10.00 or $20.00, your housekeeping money will buy you very, very little. The mother, the wife, is expected to cope with the family, and then herself cope with whatever she meets as she commutes daily from home to her job, to the dairy, to the shops, to the city and back again.

So our role in New Zealand as Pacific Islands women at community level, we are very active within our own Pacific Island community. Outside that, at the moment, we don't really have much inter-action with other women's groups, apart from our own Maori sisters. There is very little contact yet made by Pacific Islands women, as a whole, with the New Zealand woman (if I can call her that) – really meaning page 9 women other than those of kinship.

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.

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.


What the Rotuman woman is like today is really a lot of traditional attitudes or beliefs that have been handed down by generations to the young ones today.

How does traditional culture fashion Rotuman women? Firstly, like other cultures it defines the sex roles of Rotumans, and child bearing and child rearing become the prime role of the woman. One striking feature regarding Rotuman women is that their role is very, very rigid. This is greatly determined by the fact that Rotuman women are considered very uneconomically productive in agriculture. Yet if you go to Rotuma now, you would not meet a Rotuman woman coming back from the bush carrying a load of food and her caneknife because this would only reflect that her husband is lazy! Relieved from agricultural activities, her activities within the family or in the home become very rigid.

Thus, it is the woman who wakes up at night to answer to the call of the child, cleans up any mess and controls the child, while the father is left to sleep on because he has had a strenuous day in the bush. In the urban complex, the woman is blamed for the untidiness of the child when he or page 13 she goes to school. Yet in the urban situation, many women earn a lot more than their husbands and are better educated as well. This shows the inequality and the unfairness of the treatment that the Rotuman women are receiving today.

Marriage is commonly matrilocal, the husband residing at the woman's place. The Rotuman woman acts under a lot of constraint. The husband is regarded as a guest, therefore she adopts the role of a good hostess. Within the family, the woman had to keep quiet about troubles and give in to her husband to uphold the family image publically and also to uphold family solidarity.

Traditional culture specifies many things that a woman cannot do. For example, she is not supposed to talk too much in a meeting since this is a priority of the men. The woman is expected to make herself as inconspicuous as possible in a gathering, remaining, if possible, at the same place and not moving around.

Her in-laws expect her to display proficiency in speaking, in craftwork, and it can become embrassing for the woman if she visits her husband's place and does not succeed in the tests given by her in-laws. For example, they may ask her to plait a certain mat out of coconut leaf, and she is expected to use up the whole coconut leaf economically. This means that she plaits the mat and then if there are any bits left over, she makes a broom, and out of the hard stem in the middle, she must fashion a certain fork, a Rotuman fork. She cuts it up into long strips and then folds them into two. If she is able to prove her efficiency, then she is accepted. If not, in early days, songs would be composed about her inefficiency. Even though this is not done today, the idea that you must be adequate in the eyes of your in-laws is still very strong.

The Rotuman woman is also expected to be proficient in ceremonial activities. Her main role is either serving the kava or serving the food. In Rotuma, the food is served on a very low table and the serving of the food needs a lot of skill, and a lot of practice. If you forget the type of food that goes on first, you are subjected to a lot of ridicule page 14 later. The Rotuman woman undergoes a lot of tests that are not serious as far as men are concerned. It shows the inequality between the two sexes and the rights that they enjoy.

The most important and the most controversial feature of traditional culture is virginity. The women are expected to be virgins when they marry and are condemned if they are not by the parents or in-laws, if they find out. This is quite unfair that while women are expected to inhibit their sexual desires, men can have a good time and nothing is said about them. In Rotuman society, the men are entitled to this, it's the men's right or priority but not for women. This attitude had better change. Once the attitude is changed then women will not suffer from unnecessary guilty consciences.

The Rotuman wife in the family maintains the strong link between the relatives. She initiatives how much should be taken to a wedding, how much should be taken to a funeral. But this is not acknowledged. For example, when a man is successful as a leader in the society, he is praised, but the wife is never associated with him. She is not associated with the success of the husband. But when the husband does a lot of bad things, normally the people blame the wife, saying that she must be a bad wife, inconsiderate etc.

In her family, the woman's husband sometimes takes advantage of her and even though she is better educated, and better paid, he still has the final say in the home. And it restricts woman from speaking up or saying things that may be constructive as far as the whole society is concerned.

Rotuman women are not equal to the opposite sex. Attitudes that the Rotumans hold strongly must be modified. We need a lot of womenpower to do that. Women should threaten their husbands, that if he does this or that again, they will walk off, since they may be earning a lot more than he is.

Papua New Guinea

I have been asked to come and say something about Papua New Guinea women. In our Papua New Guinea societies, I can page 15 say that our women do play an advisory role even though that may be indirectly done.

Our women work in the gardens and basically they look after their children and also do the housework. Because of these - working and planting in the gardens, looking after the children, working in the home - the men consult the women about what to do, and the actual decisions are made in the home before they go out to the public. In that way, I should say that our women indirectly do play a part in decision-making in our traditional culture.

Nowadays, it is not so obvious that women are a success. I would like to see an equal recognition of the sexes. I would like to see that there is equality in pay for capability in doing the same type of work.

The idea of ‘women's liberation’ is a bit confused back in our country. Western countries have their own ideas of what ‘women's liberation’ is supposed to be and this has been passed on at our PNG University. In the beginning, I used to think that if I became liberated I had to become like a European woman or her ideas of a ‘liberated’ woman. But I have come to believe now that this, liberation, is not in the sense that they are pushing into us - to go out and demonstrate. We don't need to have all that. We should try to think of ‘liberation’ within our own capabilities, how much we understand, how much we can do, how much we can contribute and not simply go out and demonstrate how we must dress and things like that.