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Women, Development and Empowerment: A Pacific Feminist Perspective


page 116Black and white drawing of a woman collecting shellfish.Black and white drawing of a woman weaving.Black and white drawing of a woman hoeing.page 117 DAY 4


Though this was slotted for yesterday, it actually falls quite well into what we would like to do later today, which is to talk about strategies. Yesterday, we talked about our vision, the ideals of the kind of society we would like to live in and the changes we would like, in very broad terms. For this session, what I am going to concentrate on is what we mean by empowerment. To me, the word simply means: adding to women's power. Why do we need empowerment? We acknowledge that women are a group (amongst many other groups) who almost universally have less power and are in a powerless position in many areas of society.

We need to define what we mean by “power”. To me, power means:

  • having control, or gaining greater control

  • having a say and being listened to

  • being able to define and create from a woman's perspective

  • being able to influence social choices and decisions affecting the whole society (not just areas of a society accepted as women's place)

  • being recognised and respected as equal citizens and human beings with a contribution to make.

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Power means being able to make a contribution at all levels of society and not just in the home. Power also means having women's contribution recognised and valued.

When considering how we can add to women's power in society, I have looked at this at two levels and attempted to be both practical and visionary.


The first level, the practical level, is concerned with ways of improving what we have now, and our present activities and ways of working with women in the Pacific.


The second level, the visionary one, examines how we can improve our work so that we make real inroads into changing structures, affecting decision-making and changing the way in which “development” and “progress” are defined in the Pacific. This means changing the unequal power relationships between men and women, governments and people, decision-makers and people, planners and people, traditional leaders and people, and gaining back power for those people in society who have less control over their lives, especially women.

How can we do this? Drawing from our own discussions here at the workshop, I have thought of small ways in which we can add to women's power. By examining what we are doing and our present activities, I would like to suggest ways in which we can develop them or push them a little bit further, in order to gain a little more power, even in the project areas where many of us are involved.

Take for an example, the project in Kiribati involving a women's group working, on a voluntary basis, to provide some of the health care services for the government. We can ask how the relationship with government in the project can be changed a little bit, so that the women have greater participation as the definers or creators of the health services? We can question the relationship behind the women's role and involvement in that project, so that they have more control and are not just the page 119 “doers” without ever being the “definers” in the health care services and delivery.

This is just one example from the workshop presentations. We could ask questions of the many other activities we are doing and ask for changes in women's role in these activities. One thing women could ask for is feedback into the system- - instead of women always receiving instructions or ideas from the system, and implementing them on its behalf. It occurred to me, in the Kiribati project, that the field experience of those women who were doing the teaching and the training in the health education programme should be used as a resource by the government. Their perceptions of the health problems, particularly of women, could go back into the system. To change their work relationship, women would need to think of ways of reporting back into the health care system. Another change could result from this in that the health care system would be more responsive to women's input, an important improvement. Thirdly, there could be a change in the sharing of knowledge within the project. Some of the information that the women are receiving and are being trained to transfer to the community could be broadened. Apart from transferring the health knowledge given, could women learn more? Can women in the project have more training and health knowledge if they want it? That would be an area the women could think about. There may be other types of health information women would like to have that the health service has not thought of.

Having A Say in Projects

How would doing this add to women's power or control? These little pushes into what we are already doing could lead to quite fundamental changes, although they seem very small. Some of the fundamental changes that could come about are:


In this project, such demands would change the way women see health care, if there was input back into the system, from the women who are helping deliver it


It would change the power relationship between the health care deliverers and the people receiving health care, particularly women

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It would also change the relationship between Government (in this project a government service is involved) and people (women) in this specific area of women's community work


It would also be a significant change towards creating a different way of organising in that area of government activity (health care).

One way of empowering, therefore, would be for women to pressure for changes in the power relationship in a programme so that:


women have lines of communication and feedback, e.g. to the health care decision makers and planners of the project,


women are listened to.

These are changes. They are small, but significant. Think of the impact it would have generally, on health care services in the village or in the city, if the contributions of women were fed back into the system? Usually there is very little opportunity for contributions from women, who make up the majority of the health care receivers.

Practical Ways of Empowerment

Let us consider how women could actually go about doing something like this. I would like to suggest some ways, again using the health care project just given, as an example. Women could:


ask for a meeting with the health care department or whatever office the programme comes under;


not just listen to what the health office/department wants women to do, but also present some ideas and suggestions. Women should not just be told what the problem is, but be able to tell government departments and officials what problems they found. Women could also suggest problems they would like worked on first, that is, set priorities. Again, this is a small area where women page 121 could be gaining a bit more control and influence, if they had more input. This is a way of empowering women.


Women's suggestions. Women could see that their suggestions are listened to, or in some cases, women could put forward demands. The listing of what is more or less important by women working in the field should be taken into account by government planners and officials.


Women could ask for training in skills other than what they already have in that area (in this case, health). For example, is there training of traditional midwives to help provide better health care services for women in the villages? Women's groups could ask that their traditional healers be incorporated into the health care system. A WHO programme is I think already doing this for the Pacific.

All these are just examples of ways women can add to their role and influence, and benefit more from projects. We can do this with other projects as well. I have just given one example. Women who traditionally act as health teachers or practitioners, and have traditional learning and knowledge, could exchange this knowledge with modern health care practitioners.

Learning to Say “No”

I would like to give another example of the way women can gain control or gain power using another project we heard of in the workshop - the Women's Crisis Centre. In just a small area, women can gain power by learning how to say “No”. In the WCC case, the collective was pressured to change the word “Crisis” in the Centre's name, which defined the Centre and its work: Women's Crisis Centre. The WCC heard that Government transfer of its UNFPA funds was being held back because of the name Women's Crisis Centre which had been chosen to identify the centre and to define its role. The Crisis Centre collectively decided it would not change the word “Crisis” to suit the government. That was retaining control in doing just that: in not backing off, in women saying “no” to powerful institutions. It retains page 122 power and gains women power, when women are able to say: “No, we will define ourselves, we are not going to accept what the system has to offer us, at the price of changing our goals”.

Kairabu from Kiribati told me a story which also illustrates the power of saying “No”. Women said “no” to a project that had been imposed by a foreign agency on their women's group. The Kiribati government and the agency's assumption was that, in a small country, these women would not know how to say “no” to foreign experts who wanted them to do a particular project. But the women said “No” and the government was embarassed that the women's group which it had decided would be the implementers of the project, was not going to be available. The women retained that position, even though the Government had publically decided to sponsor the foreign agency's programme. In the end, the project was stopped, it had collapsed because the women said “no” to implementing it. There is a nice ending to the story too - Kairabu (and the women) got something concrete out of the experience too. When the project collapsed and the agency withdrew, the women kept all the equipment and the facilities left behind! These are some examples to show that often we have more power than we think.

Black and white cartoon of packing cases.

The Tribune, IWTC, New York, June 1989

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Examining Our Own Structures

Another thing about gaining control and power is that we must always question and critically examine our own structures, including women's organisations and their roles. For example, we have heard different experiences of the National Councils of Women. Some of these organisations work well and some of them do not. We need to critically examine our own organisational structures.

Some of these organisations are big and have the appearance of strong government support, for example, in PNG, an Act of Parliament enacted the National Council of Women and its structure. Is bigness always a strength? In the PNG case, the factor we need to examine is: who decided the structure? Resources were channelled through this large structure, which actually became an impediment to distribution of government resources to women's groups in PNG; it did not work very well. The question we need to ask is: Is the appearance of strength in women's organisational structures always a help? Sometimes it might be more effective and more empowering, and there might be more control and genuine advance, if we create working groups at all levels - to do what the women concerned want to do and have decided on. These small working groups might be more effective in mobilising women, in enabling better awareness amongst women and in organising action for women. Sometimes, a small and a particularly-defined group, working effectively, makes more sense than a large group or organisation whose structure hinders flexibility and real power for women. Genuine growth and effecting change may be more possible in smaller groups.

Therefore, on women's organisations and structures, to make sure that women gain power:


we should not always seek large organisations, but effective working groups;


we should be careful about our own organisational choices and relationships


we should be watchful of the power relationships in our own organisational page 124 structures. We have seen from examples given in this workshop that many organisations have power relationships that favour those at the top, rather than inviting participation for all women;


we need to have a leadership style that creates awareness and a sense of power for all women;


we need a sense of sharing, of “sisterhood” to help us all in a feminist struggle.

Not all women agree or will be able to agree on what they want to do or what they want to work on together. But we should not let these divisions weaken us, but keep our vision in mind to decide what is useful and worthwhile struggling over. I recall when working in the Pacific Women's Resource Centre in 1978, we used to worry about women's organisations that did not want to join the PWRC, or even opposed it. That was perhaps a false concern to be occupied with. What is important is the question of effectiveness, and gaining the commitment from women and groups who want progressive changes for women. If divisions exist, we can work on them but we should not let them weaken us as women in struggle. There is enough weakening us coming from elsewhere in the system and society.

Use of Resources - Time and Money

The last point I wish to make on the question of power and control that also emerged from the workshop is the need to examine the use of resources (particularly time and money) in women's activities. It is important that we ask what our energies are going into, and again make choices that reflect and are related to our feminist vision. This is where having a vision becomes important. If we have an idea of the fundamental changes that we want – the different arrangements and relationships in society, that will benefit all people, including women – then we should direct our energies and our resources - time and money - towards these goals.

On Money: Women in the Pacific raise a lot of money for the church, for schools, for the community, etc. We need to ask the question:

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are we usefully channelling this money into areas that will help women's advancement?


If we channel money into churches and schools (the money women raise makes a high contribution), do these institutions in turn change or recognise women better? For example, do they provide women/girls equal access schools, and encourage equal participation by women (the church)? A woman at our 1975 women's conference posed this question:

Women are always expected to do the cleaning in the church, but how come we are not allowed to preach in it?

We need to look at resource wastage: the time and money women spend on activities that may not contribute in any way to their advancement or equality of treatment. Women should keep in mind that these activities may use up their strength and energy while not giving women any greater gains in control or participation in these institutions or in the society as a whole.

To Empower Women in Society

We need to make deeper inroads into the system of society - the way in which it is organised, the way in which women are unequally represented.

Below is a list of the areas where women do not have power and where women need to gain power. This could be used as a checklist for deciding how and whether our activities contribute to empowering women, and the different ways in which women's activities could be improved to empower women more:

Key areas where women need to consider adding to their involvement, participation and power:



Decision-making at all levels - in the family, in the home, in the church, in the community.

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Improving women's access to resources and their input into how money and government support are to be used for projects women want.


Control over natural resources - women having a say over use/decisions related to land, water supply, etc; especially where development projects have an adverse impact on people's lives and particularly on women. For example, depletion of forest resources means greater walking distance for firewood; pollution of water resources means greater work for women.

Questions to Ask: What do women need to do to gain greater power over resources? How do women need to be organised to be heard? Women have a right to exercise control over resources affecting their lives and the community's.


Planning Processes

Where and how can women enter the planning processes of our societies, at all levels? Key questions:

  • Family level: Where in the family are women involved in planning/ control? Where are they excluded?

  • Community level: Are women present or absent from meetings? Are they present but not expected/allowed to speak? What can be done?

  • Village or District level: Where are the women?

  • National Levels: Is women's input invited or considered in development plans? How do national plans affect women's work, role, contribution to society?

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A Pacific feminist perspective would guide women's suggestions for national development. Participation by women in planning means more than simply adding women to a section of the national development plans of governments.


Understanding Society and the Way it is Organised

Women will not gain power and greater control over their lives if they do not know about the society they live in, its economic, social and political system, and the place of their country and the Pacific in the wider world. Women need to understand the broader context in which their activities take place. Women, to gain power, need to have knowledge of:


The political system: both traditional and introduced, and the Pacific's place in the wider world of international relations, particularly economic relations.


Development choices made by governments and how these affect men and women - from the national level down to the village level. For example, in PNG, people bought imported foods, not understanding that government policy on taxes made imported food more expensive than local foods. If people understood what taxes on imports meant, they would understand that eating local foods was not only nutritionally better, but cheaper also.


Organisations and relationships (i.e the ways things work, structures and the system). At the village, personal and family levels, women need to learn to judge organisations, how they work, and to recognise the power relationships within organisations, even within their family (between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law).

In other words, women need to understand the society that they live in, the system of government, and the economy. There is a need to know more about the processes of government, who makes decisions and how; and also, who benefits from decisions made by those in power. Then women will be able to identify where privilege and power lies - and be able to develop strategies for women having greater access to page 128 resources and gaining control over decisions that, directly or indirectly, affect their lives.

This knowledge and understanding is part of the empowerment of women. Women need to know these things to be able to work together to mobilise for change. A wider understanding of society, and of power and where it lies, would also enable women to identify other oppressed groups, who might also be joined in struggles for improvements in living conditions, wages, for better access to government, etc.

Women and Other Struggles for Social Change

There is greater strength in numbers. Women might gain from recognising and joining in other people's struggles for social change and justice, where these struggles also affect women's lives. The opposite is also true, that many women's struggles for social change will also benefit men and/or other oppressed sections of the community. It is important for empowering the women's movement, to join with other struggles, because the involvement of men and women, and joint strategies and actions of many oppressed peoples and groups, are needed to challenge institutional structures that are unjust and powerful. It is strength of numbers that is needed to challenge the unequal power relationships of governments, multinationals, colonial powers, or superpowers involved in the Pacific region.

Empowerment Means Having an Alternative Vision of Society

This is why having a vision of the society we want, having a Pacific feminist perspective, is so important for the empowerment of women. We need both:


knowledge of society as it is, our social realities and relationships of power and powerlessness, to be able to


decide our strategies and demands for change that will gain more power for women.

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Having a feminist perspective and strategies for Pacific women would help us to:


Broaden women's activities and add to their impact.


Gain greater power at all levels to control, influence, decide and change society from a woman's viewpoint.

Feminist Perspective

We need a feminist perspective because the only way in which women will be empowered, is to challenge the dominant thinking that decides how society is organised, how resources are allocated and how power is shared. We need to challenge the thinking of a male-dominated society, where “development” is usually defined by a planning perspective that we recognise does not benefit all people, especially women. Secondly, we must begin to challenge our own thinking. Only when we have a strong body of ideas or thoughts about the society we want and the changes in relationships and structures, at the personal/social/economic and political levels, can women work to gain power. We are now at the first stage, of developing a strong body of thought, a Pacific feminist perspective, that will guide us in our struggles, and direct our energies towards empowerment activities. Action is also empowering. We must continue to work at all levels, with our projects and programmes, and work on our thinking and strategies. It is with thinking (our perspective), action and strategies that we will be able to give some direction to the women's movement in the Pacific. We must challenge our methods, and develop that perspective. Only with a wider view of society and how it works, and how we want it changed, can women hope to gain greater control over their lives and participate fully and equally within society's economic, social and political structures which we hope to change.

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After a break, the workshop met to suggest strategies to empower women. The statement “Our vision” was used as a starting point for thinking of strategies. The workshop's session on strategies which followed produced the following ideas and suggestions:


Black and white title graphic.


Advancing Pacific Feminism


Changing our lives at the personal level and acting out the vision.


Stressing that the definition of our reality and vision needs to be defined by us as Pacific women.


Beginning to create and record our Pacific women's world through research, encouraging women's artistic and creative endeavours in all forms and using this record to show our women's world and women's contributions in our communities and the region. Researching, writing and publicising the lives and achievements of our Pacific women heroines, past and present, as part of this effort.


Using information from this workshop to share our vision and inviting responses and contributions to it; noting the importance of the process (how we listened and discussed things together) of this workshop and continuing it in our follow-up work.


Stressing and encouraging the use of vernacular languages to express all aspects of our vision.

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Redefining family roles to equalise work, family responsibilities and resources.

Violence Against Women


Individually and collectively disapproving of violence to women and taking action against it.


Making domestic disputes involving violence public, not private and personal.


Pressing for legislation against domestic violence.


Creating our own support systems for victims of rape and violence.


Providing women with a ‘strengthening’ body of ideas (ideology) to support their stand against oppression and violence against them.



Seeking non-sexist, relevant literature and stories for all levels and stages of education.


Surveying, criticising and changing (re-writing) sexist materials used in and outside schools for education.


Seeking the assistance of regional organisations in achieving (13) above.


Stressing the necessity of sex education in schools as part of women's understanding of and control over their bodies.


Extending “home economics” training (or training in domestic skills) to men, and extending technical, trade and science training to women.

Economic Self-reliance


Seeking to create a practical economic support system for women to enable them to stand on their own feet if they need to get out of an oppressive relationship.


Encouraging women to ensure that fund-raising activities savings go towards efforts for their own benefit and improvement.

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Seeking increased national allocation of money and resources for areas where women's productive activities are unrecognised (ie. in unpaid subsis tence production and work in the home), and assistance for women to help themselves advances economically.

Working and Organising for Women


Recognising women's organisations need to meet and talk about what they are doing and how they can support each other and develop a sense of direction.


We will communicate our Pacific feminist perspective to other women's groups.


We will use this group as an informal network to support us when we return home by exchanging ideas, information and further strategies; and sharing information on useful resources and experiences that may help and inspire other women.

Status of Women


Working against negative images in the media and opposing beauty contests.


Rejecting the study of Pacific women and their activities being used for the academic or career advancement of individuals from outside the region.

Women and Politics


Developing political strategies - informing women of the workings of the existing social, economic and political systems, pointing out where change is needed, and lobbying to effect the changes. Speaking out, demonstrating, and using whatever means that will advance the changes and legally effect them.


Women in politics - encouraging and supporting women to enter politics and work for the vision from within the existing system and helping women to effect change from outside the existing system.