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Empowering Ni-Vanuatu women: Amplifying Wantok authority and achieving fair market access

The Republic of Vanuatu (2004) report on Vanuatu’s implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) notes that many urban disenfranchised Ni-Vanuatu women live in poverty and have little access to paid employment. The women who do gain paid employment in formal jobs rarely gain access to positions of authority. The United Nations (UN) offered two strategies to improve the position of Ni-Vanuatu women in Vanuatu. The first is informed by CEDAW in Article Eleven on Employment. The “Equity Desk of the Vanuatu Department of Strategic Management” and the “Vanuatu Department of Women’s Affairs Gender Planner” (The Republic of Vanuatu, 2004, pp. 12-13) have been charged with the responsibility of implementing Article Eleven and developing Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) programmes for the public sector. This strategy aims to increase women’s access to paid employment in the formal employment sector and encourage women to achieve positions of authority. The second strategy offered by the UN is the establishment of microfinance projects aimed at providing disenfranchised urban women unable to find employment with a means to own and run microfinance businesses to earn a living. Both these strategies have the overarching aim of improving the well-being of Ni-Vanuatu women. This study has investigated the extent to which access to formal sector jobs and the implementation of microfinance businesses in the informal sector addresses the well-being of Ni-Vanuatu women. These programmes are being implemented within a complex historical, socio-political cultural and economic environment (Van Trease, 1995). This complexity includes the continuance of Wantok systems of governance in the form of matrilineality (predominant in Vanuatu) and patrilineality (adopted from Christian influences in 1800s and colonial legacy in 1906) (Van Trease, 1987; Facey, 1981; Allen, 1981 & Macdonald-Milne & Thomas, 1981). Matrilineal cultural values bequeath patrimony and legacy of lineage and land inheritance from mothers to daughters. Matrilineal women share power with men in community affairs (Maltali, Sandy & Tamashiro, 2009). In patrilineal communities, patrimony and legacy of lineage and land inheritance is passed from fathers to sons (Van Trease, 1987). Patrilineal mothers and daughters have no lineage, land inheritance, or power-sharing rights (Stege, Maetala, Naupa & Simo 2008). Both Wantok systems are based on communal values practised primarily in the rural sector. Urban centres are organised around a modern-cash and market-economy and a governance framework based on the British Westminster model and the French Head of State model (ILO, 2006). This European generated governance system is underpinned by values informed by liberal competitive individualism and an assumed commitment to meritocracy. It is, however, a system of governance steeped in patriarchal nuances as a direct legacy of the colonial regime now adapted and administered by the Vanuatu’s ruling elite, referred as Vanuatu’s urban patriarchy throughout this thesis. The theoretical frameworks used in this research draw on both liberal feminist studies and on an adaptation of subaltern scholarship (Thomas & Humphries, 2010 & 2011). The focus is on the legacy of imperialism and colonisation, the politics of power and hegemony, and the expressions of equal rights, emancipation and empowerment as these pertain to the well-being of women in Vanuatu. Three sets of qualitative empirical observations were collected: i) a focus group discussion with 20 employer and employee representatives; ii) 36 conversations with women employed in the formal employment sector who held positions of authority within their respective organisations; and iii) 39 conversations with women who owned a microfinance business. My field notes were analysed thematically using a point and counterpoint framework crafted from my interest in the work of Huxley (cf Baker & James, 2000a & 2000b & Dawson, 2009). The point is informed by a liberal feminist lens (Gamble, 1999 & Heywood, 2000). A counterpoint to this liberal feminist interpretation is generated from a post-colonial feminist perspective through an adaptation of subaltern studies (Thomas & Humphries 2010 & 2011; Gamble, 1999 & Spivak, 1988). I draw on my Matrilineal Wantok Feminist Voice (MWFV) to form a standpoint in the discussion and to frame insights drawn from the ideas associated with the solidarity economy (Allard, Davidson & Matthaei, 2009; Harvey, 2006 & Harding, 2004).   Point/counterpoint/standpoint for the research as a whole Point: Liberal feminist strategies for the emancipation of women (and the intended improvement and well-being of their families associated with this perspective) encourage women to pursue better living standards, achieve empowerment in the home, and seek formal jobs or other market-based income opportunities. If in formal jobs, women are encouraged to seek positions of authority. For these women, the major transition in orientation is the move from Wantok-related patterns of responsibilities and opportunities to those made available in the formal Western-generated economy. These Western ways, with emphasis on individualized opportunity, appear to offer financial gain and familial influences, particularly to women born into patrilineal lineage descent groups. Counterpoint: Viewed through the adaptation of subaltern perspectives that I have applied to the liberal feminist remedies for the enhancement of well-being for the women of Vanuatu, it appears that the women of Vanuatu are involved in multiple and simultaneous complex master/slave relationships (Kohn, 2005 & Honderich, 1995). These relationships are exemplified in salaried/professional occupations held by women, between the women and their employers and work-place cultures, between women and rural and urban patriarchal hegemonies, and between women and the cash and market economy. While EEO activities can be seen to make a difference in the lives of some women, taken together, these interventions are reducing the overall well-being for Ni-Vanuatu women more generally. For the Vanwods microfinance women entrepreneurs, master/slave relationships could be discerned between the Vanwods MFI’s social control of the Mamas, the Vanuatu Government’s imposition of high business licence fees to the Mamas, the Mamas and their greater dependence on the cash and market economy, and the Mamas and their relationship with rural and urban patriarchal hegemonies (Thomas & Humphries, 2010 & 2011). These forms of systemic subservience interpreted from the women’s narratives provide a caution against the uncritical adoption of Western liberal feminist ideals (DeVault, 1990). It is matrilineal women; however, who appear to suffer the most from their move into the urban centres as there they must contend with an urban patriarchal hegemony, an impediment which they had not encountered in their former rural communities governed in accordance with matrilineal Wantok values. Standpoint: The research findings suggest that all women in this study worked long hours, experiencing discrimination and oppression, received low pay, and experienced increased financial obligations as a result of their engagement in formal and informal jobs. As well as being increasingly dependent on inadequate and unsustainable livelihoods in the urban areas, family and Wantok social relations were challenged and diminished as a consequence of their necessary commitment to their jobs and the demands of urban living. Access to traditional forms of authority and sustenance was undermined. I conclude that, overall, the implementation of CEDAW-EEO programmes along with the establishment of microfinance projects devised for the emancipation of the disenfranchised women of Vanuatu, while apparently proving beneficial from a liberal feminist interpretation in granting urban women with access to incomes, property and power-sharing, may provide an element of liberation for women of patrilineal descent groups but add new dimensions of patriarchal inhibitors for women of matrilineal descent groups who take up employment under the Westminster rules of governance. The remedies taken as a whole, while promising improved well-being through market-based income generation, remove women from the Wantok kinship social support networks embedded in their indigenous Wantok governance frameworks causing complex problems and hardships for them. Drawing on my Matrilineal Wantok Feminist standpoint position, I suggest that the Solidarity Economy, which combines aspects of market access while still engaging in the traditional systems of social organization, offers an alternative organisational and economic framework for developing and enhancing community well-being in both the rural and urban areas of Vanuatu.
Type of thesis
Thomas, A. K. L. (2013). Empowering Ni-Vanuatu women: Amplifying Wantok authority and achieving fair market access (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/7344
University of Waikato
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