Women of Vanuatu

Mele Bay, Port Vila on the Island of Efate in Vanuatu.

Cyclone Pam hit the South Pacific in early 2015. It was the biggest cyclone Vanuatu had ever seen. Three and a half years later, the country is still rebuilding. The severity of Cyclone Pam can be directly linked to Climate Change.

UN figures have shown that 80% of those displaced by climate change are women. Women face higher levels of poverty, hold a lower amount of socioeconomic power than men and their voices are not heard in decisions made about their future.

In their traditional roles as caregivers and food providers, women are the most vulnerable to the realities of Climate Change. Droughts affect water supplies, forcing local women to walk farther to collect water for drinking and washing. Decreased water supply affects food security. Sea level rises uproot communities.

Highlighting the experiences of those that are rarely spoken about, and even more rarely spoken to; seven Ni-Vanuatu women share their experiences of living in a country that is rapidly changing and impart advice for other women who desire to make change.

The following words are all theirs.

Kizzy Kalsakau

In Vanuatu, we’ve got 83 islands with more than 120 languages; different kastoms and different cultures. Everything that is affecting your life, your environment, your society; you always think of the kastom you know.

We have seen changes in our coastal lines. I live on the island, Ifira, and we used to have beautiful kind of a little peninsula.

But they disappear… Our beaches disappear, our trees; all the coastal sights that we used to go to. The beautiful — we call it matowtoo — the point where you go and sit and meditate… But now it’s no longer there.

The sea is digging into our island.

We experienced Cyclone Pam in 2015.

I remember 2 o’clock in the morning. Me and my brother, we accommodated some neighbours, and my nephew and his wife and their two babies; a little girl and a little boy.

They’ve got a concrete house. Our house has a German roof. Old style. But our house stood.

And at 2 o’clock in the morning…I saw the cyclone winds uplift that house and I thought that I was watching Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.

Because the house went up and spun around and I just couldn’t hold back. Everything — my fridge, everything in that house — went up in the air and we couldn’t find it. Everything got dumped into the sea.

The next day, we didn’t sleep. It’s Nuit Blanche. In French, we say: Nuit Blanche. It’s a white night because you don’t sleep.

Twenty-four hours you stay awake and then, as soon as it’s daylight, we would just walk around and people would pick up everything that they lost or had damaged.

And we would start to rebuild on the same day.

I visited my neighbours. I visited the village. We’re all running around. Even though there was still wind. People wanted their belongings to be collected and brought back to their yard to rebuild the same day.

It started off small. And then we wait.

Some days to one week, and you’ve got your kitchen back. Maybe because we’re used to cyclones, so we don’t wait for anybody to come and help us. Anything that is hanging there, hanging around, we just pick it up. A piece of iron roofing; take it and put it back.

We’ve got a little shelter. It’s not like before, but at least it’s a little shelter.

I think it exists in different societies around the world, and it also exists in Vanuatu.

When it comes to cyclones and resilience; there’s no gender. Everybody helps each other. Men and women. That’s in my community. I don’t know about any other communities. In my community, there’s no gender. When there’s a disaster; when there is a cyclone to strike us; our resilience has no gender. Everybody helps each other.

Everybody understands that everybody is needed.

Lynnette Melenamu

Cyclone Pam was a real eye-opener for a lot of us.

When I was a kid, there was a big cyclone here.

Cyclone Uma.

I was a kid so I don’t know what a category 5 cyclone was.

But I can say from that time — between that cyclone and Cyclone Pam — there was a difference in how we grow our crops and how we build our homes.

Somehow, it’s made us stronger.

I think people are paying attention and are really understanding what’s happening to the environment. Now we can see the differences faster.

One good example is the weather. Usually, at this time the weather should be getting warmer. But it’s still cold for us.

Somehow… not sure if the seasons have changed. It’s either the season has been delayed or the season has gotten longer or shorter.

Susan Patrick

We live in the area of Whitesands, where there is a volcano.

So we are living in an area of disaster zones.

The volcano is always spoiling us.

Destroying our cabbage so we don’t have enough food to eat and look after our kids.

Sometimes it damages our house. Our roofing. Sometimes it’s hard. When the volcano erupts…

We were affected by Cyclone Pam. The roof of our house was taken off, so we put plastic over the house and waited for another house to be built. With no food. It had destroyed the foods in our garden.

Women mostly stay at home with the kids and look after the kids. The men always work and look after the job.

We enjoy home life with the kids. Women do the shopping. They go to the market to do the shopping to help their families back at home. Sometimes we have to go overseas.

Many of us now in Vanuatu go to Australia and New Zealand, for food picking so that they’re helpful for their families.

Serah Tari

A lot of the products that you see around are woven with pandanus leaf.

If we’re not careful about replanting, we’ll lose this as well.

We found out during the cyclone that most of the trees were blown away.

So they had to get pandanus plants from other islands to be able to have them grown.

We do have to be careful about our plants; the plants that we use for these weaves.

A lot of other women go around talking to women, telling them, “you have to replant trees because otherwise, in the long run, you won’t have anything to weave.”

The challenges that we have. Women mostly are finding the Capital not to do jobs. And coming from a male-dominant country, the priorities are not always women.

So it’s quite hard.

The other thing that is quite a challenge is women competing against each other. This is something that I found out. You can actually work with people, but if you find there’s a lot of competition… instead of people working with you, they would rather compete with you.

Because we are so small, we need to work together instead of competing with each other.

In April [2018], Prince Charles came to visit us. And he bought one of our hats. He was just walking out there. And he looked. So he came and bought a hat.

I was one of his guides in the house because I’m one of the leaders in the house.

He said, “Is this yours?”

And I said, “It’s not mine, it’s actually our member’s.”

I told him about the cooperative.

And he said, “It’s the perfect gift. Can I have it?”

And I said, “Of course, I want your money!”

Ketty Napwatt

I decided to retire at 55 years of age because that is our retirement age in Vanuatu.

Not because I was old and falling apart.

I decided to retire early, in a sense, because I was not really happy with what was happening. Especially with regards to the way public service commission was handling a lot of our issues.

I retired from public service. The main reason behind that was the biggest thing against me, I think, as a woman.

Not because I gave up.

I couldn’t do it because I was a woman. I could… It was just a lot of obstacles from the public service. It’s why I left.

Because we are very traditionally-oriented in many ways. Despite the fact that a lot of people have gone to the modern schools.

We’re all, in the main, brought up in very traditional home backgrounds. We grew up with traditional values.

We are reminded of our roles as women in the traditional setting.

As a woman, I think, it depends on how you feel about yourself. How you see yourself and what your views are about everything in general.

I believe that we women can do a lot. I think we’re just holding back.

Sometimes when you do that once too often. When you don’t speak up when you should. Every issue is built up. We start to blame someone else, but we’ve created those things. We’ve allowed for those things to build up.

And thus, I believe that women can do a lot.

There have been instances when they’ve all looked at me. These are the men. And they’ve said, “What do you think we should do?”

This is during critical situations.

And this is one thing that I’ve learned: when it comes to critical situations, women can be really powerful.

They can be the strength.

Because that’s what we grew up with, in the home. When someone is very sick in the house. Your children. It’s a matter of life and death. You’re the one who springs to action.

The father doesn’t do that all the time. They say, “We don’t know how do deal with this. This child, they’re crying too much.” And it’s the mother who knows what to do.

And that instinct is there.

When you take that into the office atmosphere, it works the same.

Anita Roberts

In order to fight against Climate Change, I think we all need to rally together.

But in Vanuatu, I think women are still not really involved in decision making or discussions.

I think it’s not fair.

Women: we need to give them a chance to voice their concerns so that their issues are addressed.

But I think it’s changing slowly.

It will change.

In Vanuatu, women are like the managers of our homes. They know what our families need and they know how to manage our families.

In terms of Climate Change, I think we need to involve women in decision making.

In Vanuatu, we have this rich cultural knowledge and tradition. The people of Vanuatu all need to learn that traditional knowledge.

Because, for so many years, it has been proven that our people have been able to survive through changing climates.

Our people have been focused on cyclones for years before.

Nimalatan is one of our traditional old buildings. This type of nimalatan building. It has been proven that they are safer compared to the modern buildings.

During Cyclone Pam, most of the people on Tanna were safe in those nimaltans.

I think there needs to be awareness in order for people to hold onto the traditional and kastom knowledge, to survive or build back stronger after disasters.

I would like to see that our women — our leaders — our women are our idols.

We need to put aside our differences in terms of religion or in politics. I want to see that women can be able to work together.

If they want to have this. If they want to be represented in parliament. They have to unite and work together.

Fern Napwatt

In my opinion, not all women are the same. The way they think, the way they do things…

Now, we’re fighting for gender equality and representation for women.

I think it comes down to cultural diversity.

In Vanuatu, we have this matrilineal and patrilineal society.

In my case, I’m from a patrilineal part of society, where we have men as leaders. Women are mostly in the background. It’s mostly men who do the talking and the decision-making. But, at the end of the day, there is someone who actually influences those decisions.

In my experience, with my grandparents from my father’s side. My grandfather is a Chief. But it was actually my grandmother who has all the stories. And she influences the decision that my grandfather is going to make.

We need to be able to speak out.

If you don’t talk, people won’t know you’re suffering.

You have to speak out and tell us what you’re thinking about and what should be done.

In my opinion, women, we don’t know how to talk in Vanuatu. I think we need lessons on how to present ourselves. Because women know how to speak.

Right now, there are women in high positions. They are the ones who can talk, and be out there and do something, and show: this is how you do it.

Whereas for other women; they’re mostly on the side of being shy. They agree to everything you say. They wouldn’t say no. Even if it’s not right, they’d say, “No, it’s okay. It’s fine.”

They need to be able to speak their mind and speak up.

To those young women: you can actually do it.

It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what experiences you’ve been through.

You can do it.

Just speak out.

Just speak your mind if you have to. Because we’re all human. And we need to speak out to understand each other. We can reach a solution where we can all develop together and improve our standards.

So if you need to speak out, speak out and speak louder if you must.

I’ve seen plains where there was once water. But, then due to the dry season, there’s no longer water. What used to be abundant. Where they used to fetch water. Now, they have to walk distances to get to a river, just to get water or just to do their laundry.

That’s some distance for them to walk.

Not only that, every time it’s them: the women and the children.

Whereas the men are in the villages, you know, sitting somewhere, telling stories.

And it’s the women who do the hard work: carrying jerrycans of water, taking the children down and taking them for a bath and just to do the washing and stuff.

It’s hard.

Basically, water, that’s a big one.

Even if there’s no food… If there’s no water, you can’t do anything. Water is really important.

There’s a saying that goes around:

“My land is my life. My land, my life.”

That’s what we used to say. Because when you have land, this is where you’re sure your future is secured. Because land is where you live your life. You do things, you have a family because you have land. And this is where you’re going to spend the rest of your life.

Because nowadays, right, you don’t see people living along the streets or sleeping on the corners around town. And that is because everybody has access to land. They have a place to stay; a place to live. A place to do gardening, or to start a business.

So I think this is why we are really deeply rooted to our land.

Because we know.

If we don’t have a land, then we don’t have a life.

All photos by: Cathy Ross

Interviews by: Erin Semmler, Monique Pueblos, Isabella Cheng and Cathy Ross.

Moral and academic support by: Kerrie Foxwell-Norton.

Special thanks to all the women who agreed to be interviewed and photographed.

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documentary photographer & sensitive loner. linktr.ee/cathyross

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