Mamurare (fictious name to protect people’s identities) is a small community of about 200 people in the Western Province of Solomon Islands. It takes about one hour by boat to reach the isolated island from Munda, and the journey is visually stunning - cerulean lagoons, white reefs, dark green vegetation on dotted atolls, and there is a mosaic of colours from the fisher people trading fruits, vegetables, copra and cocoa. With such paradise the tourism potential is immediately obvious, but as I sat in that speed boat, I wondered how idyllic community life was and what work did the men and women engage in.
In June this year I travelled with a research team from Oxfam and Strongim Bisnis, to three rural communities in Malaita, Guadalcanal and Western Province. As the Women’s Economic Empowerment Director for the Australian Government initiative Strongim Bisnis, I know firsthand how critical women are to economic growth and family prosperity. But there was a gap in research – no formative study on norms relating to women’s economic empowerment in Solomon Islands. Together with Oxfam we wanted to understand the gendered power relations within the main economic activities in rural areas; particularly cocoa, coconut, tourism and other value chains. We also wanted to find out what restricts and enables women to be entrepreneurs and leaders.
The study was fascinating and complex. There is a clear, traditional division of labour inside the household and the community, and an entangled expectation of men and women’s roles. The reflections and figures we collected indicated that young women bear most of the burden – both productive and care work. On top of that, women navigate the risk of violence in their paid and unpaid work, on a daily basis. In nearly one-third of households we met with in the study, there was at least one form financial violence committed by men against women; including controlling her income, theft of her income, physical or verbal abuse over her income. Women who are busy pursuing business activities also risk not completing household or care tasks to their spouse’s satisfaction, which can then trigger physical violence. The women and young women also described how moving between gardens or markets or public transport also exposes them to sexual harassment and violence. And when programs exclusively target and support women in economic opportunities, we heard that men may strongly oppose and force women to discontinue their business. All odds are stacked against women being economically empowered.
Why does this happen? We sat with communities, shared laughs, heard many personal stories and gained so much insight from their experiences and ideas. Women see men (i.e. husbands) as the most important enabler and blocker for their business in terms of permission to undertake business, sharing of care and domestic work, and the provision of financial input into the business. Basically, men’s involvement and understanding is a pragmatic necessity for women’s initial steps towards claiming their rights and economic empowerment. We also heard that when women are involved in an economic activity that brings prosperity to the family, then the family is more likely to support her. Men in fact may become more flexible and help out with unpaid work, and in a few rare cases, the division of roles have shifted to men taking on the majority of unpaid care work while their partner is the primary income earner. The most difficult moment for a woman entrepreneur seems to be at the start-up phase of the business, when the economic benefits have not materialised yet.
We need meaningful involvement of women as entrepreneurs and leaders, but how? We learnt that male role models can influence change towards more positive behaviour and gender norms. That some men in fact deviate from the standard male behaviour in a positive way and support their spouses’ business by taking a share of the domestic chores and child care. Church leaders also play an influential role in promoting certain thinking and attitudes around gender social norms. Some of the churches we visited in our study were deeply rooted in a patriarchal system that conflicted with women’s basic human rights, while others promoted positive changes such as shared household responsibilities. When we asked men and women about exploring new ways of working side by side in a way that makes the workload fairer and more balanced to make the community more prosperous, there was a united ‘yes!’. Reducing and redistributing unpaid care appeared to be some of the solutions to achieve this. As the final piece of the field analysis, Rarumana community left us feeling informed and inspired and better equipped to contribute to the Solomon Islands National Strategy for the Economic Empowerment for Women and Girls and the work that the Ministry for Women, Youths and Family Affairs leads on.
It is an interesting and remarkable feat that the Mamurare community, without external support, joined labour and financial resources to build their own school, health clinic and church with an impressive participatory governance structure in place to manage them. They are also transforming their ancient war canoe ‘tomoko’ into a tourist attraction, and the young men plan to build traditional bungalows. When the women were questioned about the men’s plans, they loudly asserted the fact that these were also their plans, and they would be the driving force of the business.
It seems young people could also be a catalyst for change. When I stood on the edge of the Mamurare wharf stretching my arm out for a glimpse of mobile signal, I watched a young couple planning to build their bungalow. And I realised that their behaviour and attitudes would transform the role of women in business and women’s economic empowerment. That they are the next generation of leaders, the next generation of parents, the next generation of entrepreneurs.