When Papamoa teacher Bridget Isichei searched for a gritty real life experience teaching overseas, she had no idea it would lead her to being a campaigner for vulnerable women in a poverty-stricken shantytown in a remote part of Vanuatu, which she desribes as “an island paradise slowly being devoured by the ocean, where women had no status despite being the backbone of their communities”.

Now back in New Zealand, where she lives with her partner, one-year-old boy and three-year-old girl, the 38-year-old early childhood teacher has written a book about her experiences, Road No Good, which was launched last night in the Bay at Books A Plenty.

The book is the story of how Bridget helped transform the women from remote villages on the island of Santo to create a future for their children.

“I really had no idea what I was in for when I accepted a two-year volunteer post to train women to be preschool teachers in a remote part of Vanuatu.”

Bridget soon discovered that in the local village hierarchy, women were ranked at the bottom of their society “while men were seen as having God-given rights”.

Bridget went to Vanuatu in 2007 to work with a group of preschool teachers, many of whom had never been to secondary school, to enrol in a certificate course and become educated. When she tried to enrol the women she was working with in a correspondence teaching course, she could have never predicted the fierce opposition her plan would face from every corner of the community.

“The outcry was uproarious; women should know their place – and know better than to try to improve themselves.”

She was based in a town called Luganville, where she said people were still practising black magic.

“In Vanuatu black magic is still a very real and current part of life. It is a fundamental part of the way society works. It can include anything from love spells that might make someone fall in love with you, to a spell that makes you shapeshift into someone else. It’s often used for healing, but can be used by thieves to break in to someone’s house. Spells can also be cast to keep people from entering a space. Magic often involves a ‘clever’ or Magic Man, leaves and stones.

“Many communities in Vanuatu have became Christian through the influences of missionaries, and those communities try not to practise black magic, although the Christian beliefs have somewhat mixed in with the traditional beliefs in some ways. It’s a very strong part of traditional culture though, and people tend to attribute unexplained events to it whether Christian or not.”

Women were still wearing fashions from missionary days, a traditional English style frock with puffy sleeves, but made from floral prints.

Bridget was shocked to learn that women in the town were ranked “lower than pigs”.

“A wife in Vanuatu costs between about six and 25 pigs. Pigs are very valuable in traditional Vanuatu culture. In traditional villages, the more pigs a man has, the greater his status and wealth. In many villages pigs’ tusks are used as currency. Pigs buy wives, so the more pigs a man has, the more wives he can have. Pigs pay debt, and pay a fine for crime including murder and sleeping with another man’s wife. In parts of Vanuatu there is a grading system for men. They attempt to move up the grades, each grade giving more magic powers and status until at the top they become a chief. A man must sacrifice pigs to move up a grade and gain more magic powers and status. Pigs, therefore, are a very highly sought after possession.

“Many communities in Vanuatu have converted to Christianity and so men in those villages only have one wife, but a bride price of pigs would be paid for her. Women look after the man’s pigs in the village.”

Because of the bride price, and women’s low status, domestic violence in Vanuatu is very high she says.

“There is a perception that a wife belongs to a man once the bride price has been paid. Statistics from the United Nations indicate that more than one in four [28 per cent] women thinks it is all right for her husband to beat her to discipline her or teach her a lesson; and almost one in three [32 per cent] believe that a man is justified in beating his wife if the bride price has been paid. Sixty per cent of women have suffered physical violence by their partner and one in three girls have suffered sexual abuse before 15 years.”  READ MORE