To celebrate the International day of Women, let’s discover the story and the ideas of Yasmine Bjornum, a young mother and feminist activist born and raised in Vanuatu. She is the founder of Sista, a women dedicated platform, which becomes more and more influent in the modern Vanuatu. She is also a talented writer who will show her poems at Alliance Française during the exhibition opening on Thursday 8th March at 5 pm called Voices of Women.
Yasmine, can you tell us more about your personal history and how you decided to create Sista magazine?
My father, originally from Sweden, was working in Australia and around the Pacific when he moved to Vanuatu one week after the country gained Independence in 1980.
He described post-independence Vanuatu as the Wild West. Just like the Wild West, there were many colorful characters and this included my father, who was one of the pioneers of Vanuatu’s shipping industry. In 1986 he brought my mother over to Vanuatu from the Philippines, and I was born three years later.
Growing up as a daughter of immigrant parents, I did not have any extended family in Vanuatu besides my parents, two brothers and sister. While I considered myself to be a proud Ni-Vanuatu, it was a country with strong communal ties and it became clear that I was disconnected from the kastom and culture. The struggle to find my identity in a small island nation of 270 000 people that’s ranked the third most linguistically diverse country in the world is what made me leave to Australia in 2009.
I applied for my Australian citizenship, ‘gave up’ my Ni-Vanuatu passport and moved to Sydney. An unexpected pregnancy saw me dropping out of university, where I was studying a Communications degree in Creative Writing, and moving to New Zealand to be with my mother. She was the only one person I knew who would support me unconditionally and help me raise my child.
As Australia and NZ have agreements, the NZ government ended up covering the costs of my healthcare and birth. They also gave me benefits and granted my daughter NZ citizenship. Despite the trauma I was going through – dealing with the stigma of being a single mum and the rejection of my baby’s dad towards our child – it was elevated by the support I was given by these amazing countries. My mother’s love and kindness also played a big role in my healing and becoming as a mother.
When my daughter was born in April 2015, my only focus was on how to raise her. I had no interest in finding a relationship but I met my current partner who was living in Vanuatu and he encouraged me to move back home.
The experience of being a single mother was the catalyst for me to understand my privilege. I cannot imagine how I would have handled my situation if I were a single mother in Vanuatu during my pregnancy and birth. If I had only carried a Ni-Vanuatu citizenship, I would not have access to high quality health care, reproductive health options, benefits, loans and the opportunity to continue to secondary education without worry. If I did not have a strong family network that was open-minded and understanding of my situation, I could be physically punished and stigmatized for having a child out of wedlock.
The reality of what my Ni-Vanuatu sisters faced is what propelled me to work in the area of women’s rights. I came back to Vanuatu in January 2016 and in April 2016 I launched Sista.
How would you describe Sista Magazine?
Sista is a platform to celebrate the diverse women of Vanuatu. It also aims to give them the space to raise their voices and share information in order for them to make empowering choices.
In the long term, I envision Sista to offer a learning center for girls and women to work in different artistic areas (photography, fashion, writing, arts, drawings…). I believe that arts, media and communications are powerful tools for self-expression and to spread positive messages.
What kind of challenges have you faced to launch Sista Magazine?
At the beginning, my objective was focused more on making an impact than an income. But in order for Sista to be sustainable, an income is necessary.
My goal is for Sista to become a socially conscious driven enterprise, a hybrid between business and development. I am still trying to figure out how to move forward consciously and have started to connect with a wonderful team of women who have been vital in the process of defining what Sista will become.
In general, most of the feedback about Sista has been positive. As the editor, we have experienced only some resistance from government bodies regarding LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders) rights articles.
Are you working on Sista Magazine full time?
No, because I don’t make any money with it. At the moment I am working part-time as the Advocacy and Communications coordinator for ActionAid Vanuatu. I also occasionally write pieces for the Vanuatu Daily Post.
ActionAid Vanuatu is an NGO that is driven by a feminist agenda and works through women-led collectives to challenge structural causes of injustice. With the long term objective of shifting the power and resources to women, instead of just seeing them as passive beneficiaries, ActionAid creates spaces for women to build a strong, collective voice in the decisions that affect their lives.
Our objective is to make them aware about their rights and work alongside them to discuss their issues, form their own solutions and in the process, reclaim their power and take leadership. Of course this takes a little bit more time than just buying a new water pipe or a new water tank.
Moreover in all the projects we are designing, we make sure that woman inputs are taken into account.
How would you describe the women situation in Vanuatu? Has it evolved since you were a child?
To me the situation hasn’t radically evolved since I was a child. A slight change has occurred since the year 2000 onwards, and particularly since TC Pam hit us in 2015. I guess the cyclone really emphasized the inequalities women have to face in terms of the unpaid workload. It also highlighted other issues such as GBV and how climate change disproportionally affects women more than men.
Although there are many projects today that supposedly have a gendered approach, it is still not good enough. While it is good to tick the box and claim that there is a gender balance in for example, a CDCCCC, it is not effective if the women are just following what the men say. They need to be recognized as leaders to express their point of views in order to contribute meaningfully to the decision-making process.
There are some older women who think that women’s leadership will take some time because of the culture and the church power. On the other hand, many girls from the young generation think like me and want a change to happen quicker.
Do you think that this kind of cultural change can happen in a smooth way by working close to the Christian associations and/or the kastom representatives?
Women have already been working through the pillars of kastom and church and there has been very little progress. #TimesUp. Women’s voices need to be heard right now. While I am often told ‘it will take time’ for women to be in leadership positions and that I have to ‘be careful’ not to offend the status quo, as a feminist I accept the resistance that comes when you dismantle power structures.
I also believe that we do not have any more ‘time’ – climate change is upon us and its impacts are very obvious in the Pacific region. Women’s voices are needed more than ever to mitigate it, as we are the ones who are disproportionally affected. We need to press forward.
What is the biggest achievement you are proud of?
It’s cliché, but my daughter is my biggest achievement. I am also proud of Sista – it is a testament to young women and the impact we can make with limited funding and resources.
Thank you to Yasmine for sharing her ideas with us and good luck to Sista Magazine!
This article was originally published in the Vanuatu French Embassy website