Western influence on young people in Vanuatu has become a common topic of conversation in the nation’s media. Western influence shapes the way people dress, talk and spend money. It gives young people access to external ideas through the internet, including neoliberal capitalist values, but also the ideas of human rights and equality. Western influences are seen to clash with local and traditional values.
The older generation are worried because foreign influence challenges and threatens their beliefs and values. They are scared that kastom, culture and religion will disappear, causing chaos and instability. Conversation around this topic represents youth as a threat to society, creating a sense of ‘moral panic’ which leaves the youth misunderstood, vulnerable and oppressed.
Vanuatu was first colonised by Christian missionaries in the 19 century (Jolly 1994) and then by France and Britain for its resources. When Vanuatu gained its independence in 1980, they were excited and proud to reclaim control and grounded the new nation in two concepts: , Christianity and kastom (the local traditional values and practices of the past) (Warren 2018). Today, people see a world which works in favour of the West and are wary of being tricked and exploited (Taylor 2008). Christianity and kastom are seen as protective values systems which defend Ni-Vanuatu society against this (Warren, 2018). At the same time, the economic context of Vanuatu ties it completely into the ways of the West. Youth are encouraged to study in Western style schools and universities so that they can be employed, mostly by Western bosses, to serve mostly Western customers or in the sale of Western services and products. Young people are expected to take on Western knowledge and engage with Western economics, but also expected to reject Western values and ideas, including personal liberty, equality and human rights, where they conflict with traditional values.
This moral panic in the media particularly revolves around women (Cummings 2013, Taylor 2010). Ni-Vanuatu women today are changing. Many are wearing trousers and other Western clothes, rather than the traditional island dress introduced by missionaries. Many are getting degrees, speaking up for women’s rights, or living independently without husbands or fathers. They are more targeted because this makes the older generation feel especially threatened.
There is not much exploration of this as Vanuatu is such a small place. However, Cummings (2008, 2013) explores the way young Ni-Vanuatu women feel about wearing island dress, and the way that older generations respond to them when they don’t. It is a complex relationship where young women want to show respect for tradition and their Ni-Vanuatu identity, but also want independence and a voice in decision-making. Taylor (2016) explores the way mobile phone technology is tied up with the Christian idea of ‘sin’ as chiefs lose oversight of interactions that take place by phone. In other writing, he looks at women’s increasing consumption of kava (an important ceremonial drug traditionally reserved for men), and men’s backlash to the women’s rights movement (2010). Warren (2018) writes about young men and the gendered problems they face as Western and traditional influences collide, and how this makes forming a masculine identity complicated.
Westernisation and moral panic in Vanuatu.
As discussed in the previous section, Western influence shapes the values, desires, practice, and livelihoods of Ni-Vanuatu people, especially urban youth. This is seen by many to clash directly with kastom — traditional and local values and ways of living. Conversation around this topic represents youth as a threat to society, creating a sense of moral panic (Cohen 1972) which leaves the youth misunderstood, vulnerable and oppressed.
Response to Westernisation by the Malvatumauri
The Malvatumauri or National Council of Chiefs, are elected representatives of district-level chief councils who consult parliament on issues relating to kastom (Warren 2018). Malvatumauri and church leaders claimed in local newspaper The Daily Post (2016) that the high rate of sexual violence is caused by foreign influence in the urban areas. They believe western influence encourages women to disrespect men in society. They see foreign influence as selfish, with no respect for hierarchy, disregarding a sense of community in favour of individualism (Warren 2018). They also fear that women will become the head of the house if they know their rights, and control men (Warren 2018). Women who dress sexually are asking for trouble and it does not show any respect towards chiefs. Cummings (2008:134) explained that kastom and Christian leaders see trousers as a Western influence that is likely to lead to women being raped or shamed by the communities. In response to that, church leaders and chiefs created a fine to discourage women from wearing trousers (Brimacombe 2016).
Response to westernisation by men in communities
Taylor (2008) found that Western knowledge that gives rights to women has become a problem for some men. Men believe that Western influence has no morals, creates problems and conflicts in the family, community, encourages young women to cheat on their husbands and promote divorce. They created a men’s group called “Violence Against Men’’ to defend the rights of men and the principles of kastom which they saw as under attack by the women’s rights movement.
Moral panic in response to Westernisation
Women in urban Port Vila are becoming independent. Young women are seeking education, and financial and personal independence. They behave differently, which challenges the norms that women should be protected by men.
This threatens men’s masculine identity as protectors and providers (Warren 2018) The emotional response to this appears in newspapers and on radio talkback, but most frequently on social media. Posts on this issue get a huge response. This generates ‘moral panic’ , a feeling of fear that the well-being of society is threatened (Cohen 1972).
The biggest social media platform in Vanuatu is grassroots online media source ‘Yumi Toktok Stret’ (YTS), followed by over 100,000 people on facebook (over a third of the population). It is very possible that it has broader reach than any newspaper. The predominant political position is conservative, and posts often revolve around threats to kastom. A frequent example is when male and female users frequently make posts to shame young people who do not fit strict gender norms. This post on their website is an example:
“Those kinds of misbehavior of wearing trousers should be discouraged in our household, our mothers and sisters should not wear it in public places and must adapt to the village lifestyle and not western lifestyle” (Yumi Toktok Stret, 2013) https://yumitoktokstret.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/females-encouraged-to-wear-trousers/
Young women have been bullied, discriminated against, and violated on the platform of YTS for many years, and the majority of those young women are too vulnerable to stand up for themself. They get harassed online, and threatened if they respond. This moral panic unfairly makes young women responsible for all changes and problems in Ni-Vanuatu society.
Responses to the conservation of kastom
Vanuatu Cultural Centre
While some responses to Westernisation seek to resist it, like the ‘Violence Against Men’ mentioned earlier, there are also organisations which seek to preserve and respect kastom while embracing human rights and change.
Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS in Bislama) is a body whose main purpose is “to support, encourage and make provisions for the preservation, protection and development of various aspects of the cultural heritage of Vanuatu”. This organisation is not based on youth specifically but influences and educates the whole nation with the local knowledge and history from the past. They provide a museum and research institution of the Melanesioan archipelago. However, VKS (supported and funded by Western bodies like UNESCO and Australia) also embrace human rights and equality and often work with women and youth. This balance between new and old ways of thinking about kastom is beneficial to women who often become the victims of moral panic. READ MORE HERE
By Stephanie Ephraim Lekal