A Place in the Sun

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Uripiv's traditional dancing ground contains the age-smoothed ceremonial stones of generations of the Vanuatu island's chiefs. The most recent addition was set in place seven years ago, during a rank-taking ceremony for Madlaine Regenvanu. That day, the Presbyterian Church elder swapped her cotton dresses for yellow paint and grass robes, clubbed a pig to death and received a traditional name, Leili. Presiding over the ceremony were her brothers-in-law, then Deputy Prime Minister Sethy Regenvanu and Chief Young John, who chairs the council of chiefs on Uripiv, a lush coral islet near Malekula island.

Madlaine Regenvanu is also a leader-of committees she has established and workshops she organizes to assist women, educate young people and help change the attitudes of men. It was in recognition of these achievements that in 1994 Regenvanu was made a chief-the first ni-Vanuatu woman on record to be so honored. "Uripiv men used to expect their women just to be in the kitchen," she says. "But now I'm on all the decision-making bodies, and they follow my advice."

One of five independent Pacific island nations that have ratified the U.N. convention on the elimination of discrimination against women, Vanuatu guarantees its female citizens the same rights as men. Gender equality is a commonplace of government policy, and women's development is an integral part of national reform programs. Yet despite lawmakers' good intentions, and the advances made by women like Regenvanu, kastom (tradition) is still used to justify discrimination and violence against women in the village and the home. With two-thirds of ni-Vanuatu illiterate and 80% still living subsistence lifestyles in remote rural areas of the archipelago's 83 islands, "most women," says National Council of Women director Grace Molisa, "are still unaware they have any rights."

On his 1774 voyage through the Melanesian islands he named the New Hebrides, Captain James Cook observed that in some places men treated their wives like "pack horses." In Polynesia, too, women were expected to submit to their husband, says Tongan-born Amelia Kinahoi Siamomua, an adviser at the Pacific Women's Resource Bureau in Noumea. But what Siamomua calls their "sacred status as child bearers" absolved Polynesian women from working outside the home. Their Melanesian cousins had no such respite. Says Vanuatu Supreme Court registrar Rita Naviti: "Where I come from [in northern Malekula], pigs were the measure of a husband's wealth. Pigs, unlike wives, had names." Women are still doing more than their share of hard work, says Regenvanu: "We plant crops, work in the garden, fish, collect firewood, cook and look after the children. Sometimes the men help, but not much."

Tom Numake, chairman of the Malvatumauri (National Council of Chiefs), says women's value to men is embodied in the Melanesian custom of bride price, in which a suitor traditionally gave his prospective wife's parents pigs, mats and kava to compensate for the loss of her labor. A few years ago, the council ruled that bride prices should be paid in cash, to a maximum of $550. That makes ni-Vanuatu women feel like objects in a shop, says Vanuatu Women's Center coordinator Merilyn Tahi, and lets men believe they own their wives' labor, sexual services and children. "We see lots of cases," says Tahi, "where a man says, 'I have the right to beat her because I bought her.'"

When the father of her first child struck Marilyn Kalangis, she gave up on the idea of marriage. "I was not prepared to live under someone else's order," she says. Sitting in her office at ANZ Bank headquarters, overlooking Port Vila's harbor, Kalangis, who is now the bank's international services manager, says, "There's no way I'd be sitting here if I was married." Council of Chiefs head Numake says kastom does not give men the right to beat their wives. He should inform his daughter, Julie Keina. "It's my husband's right to hit me when I don't do something he asks," says the mother of six.

Changing that attitude is the aim of the Vanuatu Women's Centre. Established in 1992, it offers counseling, advice and temporary shelter to about 400 victims of domestic violence each year. While it's estimated that 1 in 4 ni-Vanuatu women are beaten by their partners, most don't talk about it, Tahi says, because "the male attitude, that it's a private matter, has infiltrated the police and the legal system."

Loti Nelson had been hospitalized four times by her husband's fists before she attended a workshop organized by Tahi in 1998. After that, whenever he beat her she told the police, "so he stopped trying." Now the softly spoken Nelson runs a mobile clinic for domestic violence victims on Tanna island, one of 15 such clinics in remote parts of Vanuatu. "Some women want to kill themselves," she says, "but I tell them it's not their fault. And I tell their husbands that what they are doing is wrong."

Some men, at least, appear to be listening. Whenever Charleon Falau had problems at home, he used to beat his wife. "It's the culture I grew up with," he says. Now Falau, an actor with the Wan Smolbag theater company, uses words to resolve his disputes and to teach other ni-Vanuatu-through touring productions of plays on social themes -that domestic violence must stop. Not all communities welcome the Wan Smolbag players-or their message. In the Tanna village of Yakel, Nelson has heard stories of rape, incest and violent beatings, but none of the women will seek help. Tatau, a mother of eight, says the village chief punishes wrongdoers by making them pay fines of pigs, kava or chickens, but she just wants to "do whatever the chief says," even if that means her children miss out on schooling. "We have our own custom and culture," says the chief. "If our children go to school, they may not want to come back and live this way."

"That's not a good way to control people," says Uripiv's Chief Young John. But Tom Numake, who presides over the island chain's 2,000 chiefs, says deviating from kastom is leading ni-Vanuatu astray. Numake wants to revive an old Tanna tradition that allowed the husbands of pregnant and nursing women to have sex with a female designated by the chief. "It's a form of family planning and protection for mothers," Numake says, "that keeps [other] girls safe from unwanted pregnancies." Kastom should not be clung to for its own sake, says Hilda Taleo, director of the Women's Affairs department; if Vanuatu is to develop, she adds, some of its traditions will have to go: "After all, we used to have a tradition of eating people."

Some educated ni-Vanuatu women are reclaiming kastom as a source of strength. "If we don't have kastom, we are nobody," says the Cultural Centre's Jean Tarisesei, who is leading a project to investigate and preserve traditional ways of life in the archipelago. What is being revived, however, "is an ideal of past practice," says Australian National University Pacific Studies professor Margaret Jolly. "It's not necessarily how things were 100 or 200 years ago." But for women like Council of Women director Molisa, learning about societies like the one on her home island of Ambae-where women "had land, earned titles and commanded respect"-is as inspiring as the language of equality and human rights she learned at school in New Zealand.

The first ni-Vanuatu woman to graduate from university, publish a book and hold a senior government post, Molisa comes from a family of traditional and church leaders, "so it was expected that I would succeed," she says. But other Ambae girls were also blessed with role models-in the classroom. Says Women's Affairs director Taleo: "We were motivated by graduates who came back and encouraged us to develop academically." Few Vanuatu women are so fortunate. For every 100 children who enter primary school, 20 go on to secondary school-and just two finish Year 12. And when money for school fees is short, boys tend to be first in line.

International scholarships to support the school and university studies of ni-Vanuatu girls are helping to narrow the gender gap. But real strides won't be made, Molisa says, until women have a voice in Parliament. Though it's six years since a political party endorsed a female candidate, Molisa's Vanuatu Women in Politics group is training aspiring M.P.s to raise funds, campaign and devise policies.

Regenvanu plans to stand as a candidate at the next general election. If she succeeds, her first priority will be improving educational opportunities for ni-Vanuatu women. Entering Parliament will mean leaving Uripiv-and the training center, library and guesthouse complex she founded and named Ngaim Orsel, Garden of Plenty. But now Uripiv has a new generation of young women ready to follow Regenvanu's counsel, emblazoned on the center's façade: education is your life. guard it well. Putting that slogan into practice could be the key to improving the lives of ni-Vanuatu women.