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Women, Development and Empowerment: A Pacific Feminist Perspective


Black and white drawing of women fishing.page 97 DAY 3

page 96

The first session on Day One had attempted to get a quick response to feminism. It had been accepted that the workship would try to define feminism in a way that had meaning for women in the Pacific.

At the end of the previous day's session, a presentation of possible criteria for a Pacific feminism summarised the issues and discussions of two days of the workshop. The purpose of this session on the third day was to further develop a discussion of feminism in the Pacific, based on and developing out of, the preceding workshop discussions of women's work and experiences in the Pacific. The session was extremely long, debate was heated on a number of issues, but the ‘Vision’ statement finally arrived at had the support of most of the women present. Below is a summary of the introduction and discussion.*

* [Editor's note: Every attempt was made to be faithful to the spirit of the discussion: the need for clarity, however, made it necessary to cut down all the contributions, including Laura's wonderful introduction].


This session was presented by Laura Souder-Jaffery whose warmth, skill and eloquence, in sharing her own thoughts on feminism, invited the kind of participation and sharing that was needed for a successful conclusion to the workshop.

page 98

What I would like us to do is to generate our collective sense of what feminism is and how we understand that sense in our Pacific context.

We clearly established the fact that we have certain allergies to the word “feminism”. What we will try to begin with, is to grapple with the allergy and see if we can remedy it by understanding it.

Part of the problem, perhaps, was something she called “feminist rhetoric”. Participants were invited to talk about realities in the Pacific, and by doing so, to develop some kind of collective dream about the society women wanted to see develop. First of all, however, women needed to learn to see realities, through their own eyes - and not be dependent on the vision of anyone else. By looking at reality and daring to dream of different ways of shaping it, Laura suggested, the workshop could begin to approach a definition of feminism. This perspective would be a bridge between what women were now experiencing and their vision for themselves as women and people in a new Pacific.

The process required women seeing their realities clearly, and being able to communicate their views to the world, Laura explained. Presently, women were prevented from seeing the world through their own eyes, and were forced to accept a view of women defined by others. Women needed to see the world through their own eyes; sometimes, this meant putting on a new pair of glasses.

Think for a minute that for the last fifteen years I have borrowed my brother's glasses or my father's glasses to see anything that is important. These glasses are not prescribed for me; they have nothing to do with my vision but I have been wearing them. So, everything that I see in the world, everything that I beging to understand in the world, is understood through the glasses that have been prescribed for my brother. Then one day I get a pair of glasses prescribed for myself. And I wear them for the first time- and the world is different. I see different colours, different shapes, and every- page 99 thing takes on a whole new definition. Why? Because I changed my pair of glasses, But more importantly than that, it is because this pair of glasses reflected what my vision needed.

This is one way of looking at feminism as a concept. Feminism is our pair of glasses through which we can look at the world. Feminism is our perception, our world vision. It is a world vision that is female; it is a world vision that works from ourselves, from our being female people in our different Pacific societies. And it is our way from the stomach up, or from the gut up, of saying, “This is the way I see things”.

When we talk about this view on a personal level, (the way we as individual women see things,) that is different from trying to look at things generally from a female centre or perspective. To use another example, feminism is like lighting: if someone is interested in focusing on the floor then he/she would light up the floor; if someone else is interested in lighting up the ceiling because of beautiful carvings on the ceiling, then a different set of lights would be used.

The lighting of history has been with male experience and using official male-dominated forms of power and politics. The lighting that we are talking about here is the lighting that emanates from our roles - first as daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, working single women and so on. Our perspective will go further and further out, as long as we are willing to extend the light.

I invite you to embark on a journey to discover a vision of justice for ourselves as Pacific women. We need to think seriously about taking off those glasses that belong to our brothers or our fathers or our husbands or our lovers - and putting on our own pair of glasses. You may say: “But we do not know what our vision problems is”. Well, we have been going to the doctor for the last two days, to determine exactly what those pair of glasses can give us. Let us think in terms of our vision as we take this journey, and use feminist rhetoric (feminsit words and ideas) to think and discover what that rhetoric is and what it can be used for.

page 100

Let us look at feminism then as an ideology, a set of ideas. If the words are strange or irrelevant and you would like to explore them, or change them, do so.

Feminism, she concluded, was an ideology or a female philosophy of liberation. The liberation was not meant just for women - but for everybody. Only in that way could real liberation occur. Liberation could mean many things for women - being free from having to do everything in the home or being solely responsible for child rearing for example. Emphasis was placed on feminism as a way of looking at the world:

Feminism is a way of looking for, and of seeking, answers. From that point of view it gives us analytical tools through which we can challenge conventional wisdom - conventional wisdom being the way things are supposed to be, especially for women.

Women in the Pacific would each have different views of the world, depending on their culture and class (economic position). The third day of the workshop was a journey towards creating a framework or outline of a feminist vision, which women in the Pacific could use to identify their world, from their everyday experiences. A framework would help Pacific women to plan for changing the world according to their needs.

page 101
Black and white photograph of workshop participants.

Workshop Participants
Front row (L-R): Dewe Pourouin, Fungke Samana, Amelia Rokotuivuna, Aiffe Mionzing
Second row (L-R): Louise Aitse, Sadie Bogotu, Noeleen Heyzer, Laura Souder-Jaffery, Shaista Shameem (hidden)
Third row (L-R): Se Nellie Singeo, Jully Makini, Moana Bentin, Naama Latasi
Back row (L-R): Shamima Ali, Arlene Griffen, Hilda Lini, Vereara Maeva, Mesepa Atoni, Claire Slatter, Lata Soakai
Absent: Kairabu Betaia, Vanessa Griffen, Alamai Manuella, Donita Simmons, Prem Singh, Joan Yee

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.


Black and white title graphic.

Our Vision

The Family

The family as an institution has a profound effect on the lives of women, on how they view themselves and on how society views them. It is therefore important for women to change the power relations between and the roles of husband and wife, and male and female members of the family so that male and female members have equal status and interchanging roles.

It is in the family that children first learn attitudes about women in society and it is important that the family encourages and teaches an egalitarian view of society and women. Unless egalitarianism is practised in the family there is little hope that children will grow up with a humanitarian view of the world.

Our vision of the family therfore includes the following:

  • a better world for women in the family

  • equality between family members in terms of status and responsibilities

  • equal distribution of family resources

  • equality in child rearing

    page 112
  • eliminating all forms of domestic violence

  • working with other women in our family

  • reproductive control by women

  • equal rights to the wealth generated by the household

  • equal status of common law wives

  • elimination of sexual abuse of children (incest) in the family


Education should provide useful knowledge for us as women to be able to understand the societies we live in. It is important for us to have access to all forms of knowledge. Knowledge is essential to enable us to analyse our specific situation as women and to transform society.

Our vision of education requires the following:

  • equal opportunities for women to pursue studies at all levels without restrictions

  • training of women by other women in traditional skills

  • broadened training opportunities for women

  • challenging the present concept of education so that all forms of knowledge are seen as equally important

  • equal opportunities to pursue knowledge in all areas and all levels

  • challenging the content of education at present in the Pacific which is not suitable for village life especially where there is so much unemployment in the urban areas

  • eliminating sexist content in school curriculum

  • changing the present situation where the acquisition of knowledge through formal institutions is disproportionately rewarded with power and status in the community.

Black and white print - pacific design.

page 113


We recognise that religion is an entrenched system in Pacific societies. However, as women, we question some of the basic doctrines and practices of the major religions in the Pacific because they repress and exploit people, especially women.

Our vision therefore includes:

  • challenging and changing the interpretation of religious teaching and values

  • challenging the oppressive and exploitative aspects of and the acquisition of wealth and land by the churches especially through women's fundraising

  • religious teaching should speak to the present situations in countries, projecting positive images and non-exploitative marriage arrangements for women

  • changing the focus from building edifices to delivering services and housing to people.

  • challenging the rise of fundamentalism and proselytising within Christianity and the Islamic faith

  • opposing the compulsion to participate in church rituals and acitivities and to contribute funds to church causes


Women are the most economically-exploited group in society and as such are committed to transforming the economy to a more equitable system. This system must ensure the equal distribution of resources for production and of development benefits.

Our vision of the economy is one which allows:

  • equitable access to productive resources and capital

  • equitable distribution of wealth generated by the people

  • using resources in ways that benefit the whole society and not just a small proportion of the people

  • sovereignty in choosing trading partners

    page 114
  • sovereignty in choosing an economic system

  • self-sufficiency

  • economic independence of women


We know that our natural environment is explited senselessly for the short-term gain of the few, with dire implications for everyone. We believe we must take action to stop this exploitation and conserve and replenish our resources.

Our vision includes:

  • natural environment: using the natural environment with respect and only to meet immediate needs

  • ensuring collective (rather than individual) control over natural resources, including land, recognising that the environment is the source of all our basic needs

  • opposing the “rape” and pollution of the natural environment

  • supporting a nuclear-free Pacific

We also believe in the necessity to create a safe, healthy and liveable environment in which the basic needs of all people are adequately met.

Our vision is therefore:

  • social environment: creating an environment where basic needs are met

  • creating an environment in which all people may live without fear or insecurity

  • creating a non-violent environment and opposing militarism


We believe that the present political system does not allow wide participation, equal representation and collective responsibility. Politics is the system through which decisions affecting our lives and futures are made.

page 115

We therefore demand:

  • equal participation for women at all levels in the political process and system

  • consultative, participatory decision-making

  • collective rather than hierarchical decision-making

  • consensual rather than confrontational or competitive discussion

  • freedom of political self-expression except where this counters human development

  • universal suffrage and widest representation in the parliamentary system

  • elimination of discriminatory practices in the legal system and in the constitution

  • political self-determination for colonised people

  • opposing Western political manipulation

  • non-aligned policy and recognition of the sovereign right of states to determine their relationships internationally.

Black and white cartoon of a woman addressing the mayor.

The Tribune: IWTC, New York, June 1989

* The statement “Our Vision” was drafted at the Workshop, read to participants, added to and accepted by the Workshop as the beginning of a feminist framework for Pacific Women's strategies and hopes.