It’s a balmy Friday afternoon in Black Man Town (Lenakel,) on Vanuatu’s southernmost Tanna Island. The mamas gather at the local marketplace to sell their fresh produce, and the occasional brightly coloured bag, woven intricately from pandanus leaves.
Across the road is a black sand beach with crystal-clear water, surrounded by palm trees and lush forest cover.
Watching the mamas tend to their children and laugh as they talk amongst themselves, it’s difficult to picture this place in ruin after Cyclone Pam hit in 2015.
Climate change and women
Vanuatu is currently seeking climate justice from the UN’s International Court of Justice, and advocates and community leaders say Ni-Vanuatu women need a seat at the table.
“Women and girls should be assured that their basic human rights are protected from the actions of States that are causing climate change,” MP Gloria Julia King told the ICJ initiative.
The country marked as the world’s most ‘at-risk’ for natural disaster by the UN world risk index suffered six major cyclones from 2011-2020, affecting over 300,000 people.
Climate change and natural disasters disproportionately impact women and girls. In Vanuatu, women take on the lion’s share of responsibilities when it comes to disaster preparation, response, and recovery in their community.
Natural disasters devastate entire communities, but for women, the added stress of things like
forced displacement, loss of livelihood, food insecurity, and lack of healthcare are exacerbated by existing gender inequalities.
Studies suggest a link between times of crisis and disaster, and increased rates of domestic and family violence.
Vanuatu has some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world, where 60% of women have experienced physical or sexual gender-based violence (GBV.)
The existing rates of GBV combined with the frequency and severity of natural disasters, places Ni-Vanuatu women in a vulnerable position.
“To eliminate violence against women, girls, and women with disability, the simplest action one can take is to include us, listen to us, walk with us, and invest in us.”
Flora Vano is a Ni-Vanuatu woman and program manager of ActionAid Vanuatu. Earlier this year, Vano briefed the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, on the need for more gender-responsive approaches to address climate change.
“Women’s role in responding to climate security is often overcast and misunderstood, and yet, women’s knowledge, participation, and collective action are crucial to the climate mitigation and adaptation dialogue. Women are already working at the frontline of building more resilient communities,” she said in her briefing.
Despite their unique knowledge and resource management skills, women in Vanuatu have very little access to leadership roles and aren’t included or considered in decision-making involving climate mitigation and resilience.
A 2019 study found that increasing women’s representation in national parliaments leads to the adoption of stronger climate change policies, resulting in lower emissions.
At the local level, women’s involvement in disaster prevention, preparedness, and response greatly improves the outcomes for women and girls, as well as other groups whose needs may often be overlooked.
Ms Vano, in her briefing, explained that Vanuatu has a long legacy of a male-only parliament, and because of this “women are often invisible in policy-making.”
Ni-Vanuatu women remain hopeful for change as Gloria Julia King was elected in the recent snap election, the nation’s first female MP in 14 years. But Vano told the UN Special Rapporteur that much more needs to be done to ensure their voices are heard.
“Without adequate representation of women in these discussions, we are jeopardizing our future, while the disproportionate impact of climate change and disaster on women is ignored.”
“This includes the increased burden of unpaid work and food insecurity, increased rates of gender-based violence, and marginalization of women’s voices and leadership.”
Cultural barriers to leadership
VBTC radio presenter and disability advocate, Madlen Netvunei, says there are additional cultural barriers for women wanting to take on leadership roles.
“When it comes to actually implementing something that will change other people’s life, they tend to look back, ‘oh, what does my religion say? Or what does my culture say about this? How is my husband going to feel about this?’” She said.
Ms Netvunei hosts Vanuatu’s only gendered radio station, Femma Pawa, where she talks freely about issues like gender equality, climate change, equality for people living with a disability, women’s leadership, and gender-based violence.
Having a voice in this space has affected her personal life, she said, and can be even more difficult without the support of those around you.
“For some of us that stood up for our rights and stood up for the other women in our communities, realistically, we end up having to choose between what we believe and the relationship. I choose my job.”
“Even when you come to a stage where you have to make these decisions, about your welfare, you’ll get criticized by everyone, for what?” Netvunei said.
“They will not see it as something that you did for yourself or your kids, something good. They will see it from the man’s perspective.”
Traditional social structures of Kastom (traditional indigenous culture) favour segregation of the roles of men and women.
Men are regarded as leaders and decision-makers, whereas women have a less visible role in traditional society – being responsible for the home, growing and preparing the food and raising the children.
These structures have influence at both national and provincial levels.
“In Melanesian culture, we are taught to respect men and our elders,” said Netvunei.
What’s more, customary and arranged marriage holds great culture significance, where the tradition of bride-wealth is still widely practiced across the nation.
Traditional goods and currencies paid by the groom’s family to the father of the bride is said to solidify the union between two families, but advocates worry it diminishes women’s autonomy by reinforcing the notion that they belong to their husbands.
This impacts Ni-Vanuatu women’s ability to speak out against injustice, said Netvunei, as they don’t feel empowered to do so.
The grassroots movements making change
The aftermath of Cyclone Pam saw ActionAid implement two new community-led initiatives, supported by the Australian Aid Program; Women I TokTok Tugeta, or Women Talk, Talk Together (WITTT) and Women Wetem Weta, or Women’s Weather Watch (WWW.)
These community networks go hand in hand, connecting over 5000 women across five islands in Vanuatu.
Esther Rubyn and Janet Latiknu are community mobilisers with ActionAid, leading the WITTT and WWW movements on Tanna.
WITTT is a platform allowing Ni-Vanuatu women to mobilise and organise in the face of climate change and disaster, a space for women to speak up about their safety concerns in times of crisis.
Rubyn and Latiknu say they have seen “big progress” in their communities since the movements inception.
“In Cyclone Pam we didn’t get the right information, and everything got destroyed. But now with this platform and network we are working with, if there is another disaster, I know that we will be well prepared. The women will get the information clearly” Rubyn said.
The platform also coordinates WWW, an early warning and response messaging system for disasters.
Members of the network are given the tools to study weather patterns and disseminate the information in their local language, so the women can understand and take necessary action.
The messaging service, a combination of SMS and in-person communication for rural and maritime areas, has reached 77,000 people or nearly a quarter of Vanuatu’s population.
“We have about 60 women leaders now, under those leaders they can have up to 8 sister circles, and in that sister circle there are 20 women in each circle.,” Latiknu said.
The messages are targeted and specific, depending on where the women are located – communities living close to the Volcano will receive different messaging to those in coastal areas.
“We recently had a training on weather and how we can improve our soil, more than 50 women attended the training,” she said.
These training sessions educate women on how to adapt their farming practices to different weather patterns, like flood or acid rain.
“In the future they know the disasters will come up more and more, so the trainings give us techniques and knowledge while facing those disasters,” Latiknu said.
“I feel responsible now I know that I’m a leader, I know I should also share these skills with other women, we always come together to encourage each other that they have the right to speak up.
We empower them to know that they have the right to say anything.”
Speaking up and being heard
But speaking up isn’t easy in remote communities like those on Tanna, an island steeped in tradition.
In places with strong Kastom like Tanna, women are not allowed to go inside, or even look at, the Nakamal- a customary meeting place used for kava drinking, ceremonies, and important discussions.
Latiknu said many in the community are “afraid of the movement.”
Kastom concepts of rights, or raet in Bislama, relates to privileges that are earned or acquired, and do not equate with western notions of human rights that focus on individual equality. The idea of a singular rather than a collective identity, is alien to the indigenous system.
Many fear that adopting these neoliberal concepts means further modernisation, and that having women in leadership is a threat to their traditional Christian beliefs, and Kastom ways of living.
This presents a major challenge for women’s rights movements in Vanuatu, and begs the question – how can Kastom evolve to empower women and girls, while preserving tradition and culture?
Rubyn believes the progress she has seen, thanks to the WWW and WITTT initiatives, are an example of this shift within her community.
“Hosting training sessions and workshops allow the women to develop greater leadership skills, which are now being recognised by their husbands and leaders in their community,” she said.
“We try to teach them that it’s not about taking the leadership or the power from the man, but to speak out for your right.
In times of disaster, you should not be neglected.”
Women’s economic empowerment
The WITTT network’s new initiative is seeking to lessen financial burdens for Ni-Vanuatu women in times of crisis and disaster.
Women are expected to grow and prepare food for their family, care for the children, the sick and the elderly, and they often have little time left to pursue economic opportunities.
The network is establishing shopfronts across the province, owned, and run by local women, that support women’s economic empowerment and financial literacy in the local community.
“I think it’s the only organisation and network that tries to build up a woman’s leadership, and empower women economically,” said Latiknu.
Agriculture is one of the biggest employment sectors for women in Vanuatu, and loss of agricultural product due to changing weather patterns or natural disaster means not having the funds they do need for things like school fees.
Rubyn and Latiknu say being able to provide for their families is crucial in times of disaster, and the initiative has given the women in their communities a newfound sense of independence.
“This small livelihood helps them provide,” said Rubyn.
“They now have their own money, their own savings, and they are so proud.”
The initiative is also teaching women in the community to save and spend their money wisely, the shop also gives loans to women in need.
Having savings to fall back on provides stability for the mamas, said Rubyn, and will aid in preparation and recovery processes if disaster strikes again.
“They know how to save and manage their money, and they feel empowered.”
This new financial competence is giving women a step up in the community, said Rubyn, who says she is happy to be receiving recognition for her hard work with ActionAid.
“In my community when we organise an event, they come to me and ask, ‘what should we do?’ and when I see that I feel empowered, because they understand what we women are trying to do.