BE CONFIDENT: what I’ve learned from (and hope to share with!) ni-Van women

This post means an extra-special lot to me, so please take the time to take a peek!

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Women.

Demonstrably proven to be culturally and monetarily underappreciated. And yet, when empowered, the changes they tend to effect are exactly that: powerful.

You don’t have to take my word for it. I invite you to take a peek at UNWomen’s Facts and Figures about Economic Empowerment. Some that stood out to me:

  • A study using data from 219 countries from 1970 to 2009 found that, for every one additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality decreased by 9.5 per cent
  • Women devote 1 to 3 hours more a day to housework than men; 2 to 10 times the amount of time a day to care (for children, elderly, and the sick).
  • When paid and unpaid work are combined, women in developing countries work more than men, with less time for education, leisure, political participation and self-care.
  • Women comprise an average of 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries
  • Companies greatly benefit from increasing leadership opportunities for women, which is shown to increase organizational effectiveness.

Oh, how Vanuatu is just so.

Any Peace Corps Volunteer who’s run a PACA Workshop can tell you: women here do more. To regurgitate some cultural banalities: Ol mama, oli mekem bigfala wok— The women do so much work. And the men? Wok smol, spel bigwan— That is: work a little, rest a lot… (drink kava).

Suffice to say, I have had the blessing of crossing paths with so many incredible ni-Vanuatu women.

One of the platforms for these interactions has been school: the staff at my post is comprised of 21 women teachers and only 2 men. Let me tell you: every. single. one. of these women is an absolute powerhouse. I cannot overstate that fact. The work they get done in a day is outstanding: even just classroom management for upwards of 40 students, so many of whom experience trauma at home, is no small task. Add to it lesson-planning, grading, administrative tasks. And then returning home to cook (over fires!), fastidiously clean their yards, sweep out their houses, hand-wash mountains of the family’s laundry, bathe the babies, run to town to buy the food they no longer have time to grow. I hear them talk about being up past 11pm, getting up at 4am (well before the hot South Pacific sun) to start their chores…

And still, the level of professionalism I have found at my school in town has been inspiring on so many levels. The older leadership encourages young teachers to run workshops on newer material being taught in Teacher’s College. They all submit daily lesson plans, checked by the principal. Meetings start promptly and are surprisingly formal, with clear agendas, motion-making, and minute-taking.

I recently took the time to interview one of these women, Miss Larisa Jill Temakon, and the interview was featured on Peace Corps Vanuatu’s Gender and Development Committee’s website, here. Miss Jill responded in a mix of Bislama and English typical to those ni-Vanuatu who have had access to a deeper level of education, and I’ve translated the interview for my English-speaking readers, but I also want to break it down a little bit here.

As I write in the interview, Miss Jill is a paragon of ni-Vanuatu women’s productivity. At only 23 years old, the amount of work she accomplishes in a day is no less than prolific. She is the head Reading Helper at our school, designing the one-on-one pull-out reading curriculum that she and her two fellow Reading Helpers conduct with every single one of our students. Additionally, the administration relies on her heavily for assistance with photocopying, filing, and resource-creation. She is a whiz when it comes to digital design and a true artist, illustrating books that she’s written in Bislama and designing and painting the logos for all (600+!) of the students’ Sports Day team t-shirts. She takes courses at the local university in pursuit of her dream to someday become an architect. And also, all on her own, tends to her family’s property on the island. Have I misused the word powerhouse? If anything, it feels like an understatement…

Miss Jill

But yes, as I sat in our tiny, dusty, full-to-the-brim library, picking Miss Jill’s brain, one theme in particular left me deeply inspired. When asking her what she sees as Vanuatu’s biggest need, she answered emphatically: education. As a woman who has had the opportunity to receive an excellent education, she talked about how, from her perspective, the issue is not that the people of Vanuatu are void of good ideas. Instead, she recognizes that many ni-Vanuatu, including those in rural settings, have great ideas all the time. The obstacle is that they don’t always recognize or quite know how to express and manifest them. She brought up this thought a second time when explaining what she’d like to share with other women in Vanuatu, if given the chance.

Be confident!

she said, and I stopped scribbling, looked up. I’d been struggling to confidently find my place at such a talented school, and it felt like she was talking directly to me. “We all have different ideas, have different things to offer our communities; if women had more confidence, they could do some great work. Some of them don’t, they’ve been held back emotionally and physically. But with enough confidence, they’ll be able to do work and really achieve something. Confidence and courage.”

What Miss Jill is advocating for in both of these situations is not a brainwashing with western thought, but rather an empowerment of her own culture’s way of thinking. She already knows just how capable the people of her country are. The only thing stopping them is the means to express themselves.

Which brings me to another platform I’ve had that’s facilitated amazing interactions with local women: my role as a member of the Gender and Development Committee I mentioned above.

On the GAD committee, we work to help support and empower volunteers as they encounter gender-based violence throughout service (it’s a sad truth that 60% of ni-Vanuatu women will experience some type of intimate partner violence during their lifetime), to provide inclusive project-planning tools like the PACA workshops I mentioned above, and also to directly empower ni-Vanuatu youth through community clubs and our yearly Training-of-Trainers Camp, GLOW-BILD (Girls Leading Our World/Boys in Leadership Development).

While I usually write my posts with no objective other than to share a bit of perspective, Camp is where I’m going to pause to say: I need you.

Better, we need you.

Not every volunteer in Peace Corps Vanuatu has had the same experience with the women in their communities as I have. As brave, independent, well-educated men and women who have ventured out of our home country to serve in a completely different culture, it can be extremely challenging to see the cultural differences towards women here (and of course, also can leave feelings of #f$ckthepatriarchyworldwide… is that a hashtag yet? no?). Oftentimes, the work we are able to do to address gender-based violence and the patriarchal dominance that silences so many women’s voices can feel like whispers in the wind. And the most frustrating part is often exactly what Miss Jill is getting at: it’s not that the men and women living in rural Vanuatu aren’t capable of embracing more equitable feminine roles in their communities. More often than not, some of the biggest barriers to women’s empowerment (and the benefits this empowerment can engender!) are a lack of education and underdeveloped confidence…

And so I present to you: Camp. With GLOW-BILD, we on the Gender and Development Committee have the privilege to not just whisper, but tangibly bring together and help educate a group of 12 volunteers and 12 ni-Vanuatu counterparts from all over the country, often from extremely remote communities typical to Peace Corps service here. We meet in a community (usually that of another volunteer) that has demonstrated an acute desire and need for youth empowerment. Over the course of a week, we separate into two groups (men and women), and volunteers and counterparts practice co-running culturally-sensitive sessions about leadership skills, reproductive health, and healthy relationships. When I helped run Camp last year, the direct interactions I had with the local men and women were so powerful. We had conversations about the health of current relationships, self-confidence, and family-planning. Women talked with me about how they’d never really thought about what makes a good partner, and counterparts who started off shy embraced their roles as session leaders. Probably my favorite part was the last day, when we ran a mini-camp for local community children. The counterparts and volunteers worked together to adapt our sessions to be appropriate for the students’ age-groups, and it was so cool to watch them really own the adaptations–taking their own ideas and using the tools we’d been able to help provide them with to bring them into reality, and in a way that empowered the community! It felt exactly like what Miss Jill was talking about. And if that alone isn’t enough to demonstrate the value of Camp, I want to add that many volunteers have expressed gratitude for being able to share in these types of experiences with their counterparts. It’s an extra benefit that Camp provides them with a concrete platform and a diverse, culturally-appropriate toolbox to use when addressing these sensitive topics in their communities.

But to finish rambling and say it short and sweet: funding cuts for the USAID grant we’ve been able to use in the past have put this year’s Camp at risk. I’d like to ask you, if you feel you can, to please click here to show your support. Strengthen our whispers as volunteers. Help equip ni-Vanuatu leaders with the tools to help their communities grow. Every little bit helps. I can’t express how much I would appreciate it.

With love, as always,

Sydney Nicole

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