Sunday, August 12, 2012

The gender mind bender

Last week the Solomon Islands Province of Malaita elected a woman into the National Parliament. She's the second woman ever in the country to be elected nationally. Now, the interesting thing about this is that Malaita is one of the patrilineal provinces (meaning that when a couple marries it is the woman who moves to the man's place) and has a reputation for being very strong in Kastom (custom) and quite patriarchal in thinking. Other provinces like Isabel and Makira are matrilineal.

So, on the one hand, people are a little surprised that Malaita should lead the way on female representation in parliament. On the other, there is talk of Vika Lusibaea only being elected because of her husband, who was very popular in the region but banned from politics due to his involvement in war crimes. She promised to continue her husband's agenda. I heard that some felt that since democratic elections are a western imposition and not Kastom, so why not go the whole hog and elect a woman!

As these issues play out on the national stage, we grapple with gender and power dynamics at the village and organisational levels. One of the challenges of the project I am involved in is to promote gender equity in the communities that we work with. For us, it also means thinking about enabling real participation of women in decision making, and making spaces for people to talk about gender roles and how men and women are sharing workloads and decision making power in the home and modelling both male and female leadership at the organisational level. It's also about taking a tough stand on gender based violence.

However, I am finding that it's wise not to make assumptions or quick judgements. The only man in Solomon Islands to be considered a gender expert is our beloved Grayham, who comes from Malaita. And it's the men from Makira who are currently not happy with me because I support the appointment of women into positions of leadership. At the same time, I have had more meaningful discussions with men that I work with in Solomon Islands about gender than I ever do in Australia.

Another thing that annoys me in this whole development scene is Australian men coming in and making judgements about "gender issues" in Solomons without looking at the plank in their own eye. While more than a third of Australian women have experienced domestic violence and men still make up the majority of CEOs in our sector, I think we should be very careful about getting on our high horses and demanding  miraculous changes in behaviour and attitude overnight in places like Solomon Islands when it's taken 60 years to see any meaningful progress in Australia.

However, I believe that change is possible. As we've seen from this recent election, and from changes in livestyle, dress and eating habits, people all over the world can and do adapt to changing circumstances in both positive and negative ways. We just need to encourage healthy changes, and support people who are at the forefront of challenging less helpful beliefs and practices. So, as Malaita heralds a new era of politics in Solomon Islands, let's wait and see - maybe other positive changes will follow.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Out of Honiara

8 seater plane to Marau Sound, Guady

Getting to most of the community learning centres that we work with in Solomon Islands is no easy feat. A typical journey to the provinces can involve a small 8 passenger plane, followed by an 8 seater boat with an outboard motor (referred to as OBM), followed by dug out canoe, wading through raging rapids or a hike into the jungle. In most of these scenarios it's better to pack light.

There is something very homely about boarding a small plane and being able to see the pilot and all the controls. It's "a more personal experience" when the pilot climbs aboard, checks the doors are shut properly, gives the safety demonstration, and comments on the weather and expected flight time before settling into his seat and starting the engine. Flights depart for most provincial capitals 3 times a week, and the arrival of the flight from Honiara is a community event, with people turning up to watch the landing, even if they don't have family members arriving or departing.

When you disembark, you find yourself in the middle of a large field, with a few people gathered around, and most likely no airport as such. It's important to be met at the airport, as getting from the airport to the port can often be an adventure in itself. At Kira Kira airport in Makira Province you have to either squeeze on to the back of a large communal truck, or organise a truck of your own, because the port is quite a distance away. Luckily you won't get bored waiting for your truck, because one of the locals makes it his business to greet every flight coming in, chatting away to passengers in sign language, and offering to carry bags for a small fee.

Once you're at the port, then it's a matter of organising a boat and securing enough fuel to last you for the return trip to wherever you're going. Given that fuel usage depends on how angry the sea is that day, the fuel discussion is always a lengthy one. Then it's time to board. One boat ride in Makira was so rough, I truly believed I would die. Rain was pounding our faces, while the boat rocked from side to side and waves crashed against the side of the boat. The captain and crew were excitedly shouting directives to one another and I expressed some concern. "Oh, don't worry", they assured me. "If we were really in danger, we wouldn't be talking at all". OK. My petite colleague told me that she once found herself literally flying from one end of the boat to the other in the bad weather. I was secretly glad to be on the heavier side of average in this case!

Dug out canoe for crossing difficult channel, Makira Province
When your boat approaches the shore, however, the journey is still not complete. To reach some villages requires a 30 minute hike inland, while others are closer to the shore. One village I stayed at was spread across both sides of a raging river, and the only way to get to my accommodation was to wade across the river. After much discussion, it was decided that I needed the assistance of a very skinny pre-teen boy. Another time, I was assisted across a river by a dug-out canoe, expertly steered by another very young man. My colleagues told me that I couldn't be trusted to sit in the canoe without capsizing it AND be responsible for my own bag, so my bag was taken across separately.

Normally arrival of newcomers at a village is heralded by calls on a shell or pipe, and then warriers turn up pretending to attack you while the other villagers gather about and help secure the boat or say hello. Garlands of flowers and speeches often follow. Normally I am drenched from head to toe, busting to "pay a short kastom visit" and a bit wobbly on foot during these prestigious welcomes, but always glad to have arrived safe and sound. I try not to think right away about the return journey.

Time to toughen up

Honiara is not the worst place in the world to be. But it can be tough. In the course of one day I managed to get groped in the middle of town in broad daylight by one young man, another threw his melon peel in the direction of my crotch in an intentional way, and in the evening I was harassed by two drunk men, each apologising for the behaviour of the other. And that wasn’t even the day I got pickpocketed. It’s become a challenge to get through a day in town without such eventualities. 

However, it’s not only in Honiara that you can be surprised and scared. Within days of the pickpocket experience, I was off on my first site visit to a village half an hour’s hike in from the beach in East Guadalcanal. The walk itself was not overly demanding, but nevertheless, I was looking forward to arriving at the village. Suddenly, out of the bushes came a group of warriors dressed in the traditional dress of leaves, and surrounded me. One grabbed his hands around my neck and held on firmly. Others were shouting and seemed very angry. Suddenly my colleague was nowhere to be seen. I began to panic and fear the worst – that I was under attack. Then, as suddenly as it began, my neck was released, and everyone started shaking hands and ushering me into a clearing where the whole community had gathered for a welcome ceremony. I have to admit that there were tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat from the surprise of it all. When my colleague re-appeared, and I told him in a wavering voice that it might have been nice to have been warned about this little welcome ceremony, he simply shrugged and bemoaned the fact that he had been unable to get a satisfactory photograph of the event. I guess I just have to toughen up and get used to it all.