Over 150 women human rights defenders and feminists from the Pacific convened for the 2nd Pacific Feminist Forum from 20 to 22 May 2019 at the Pearl Resort, Pacific Harbour Fiji.
The Forum mobilised diverse women from across the Pacific to share knowledge and experiences, celebrate achievements and strategise for collective action to achieve women’s human rights. It was a transformative space for Pacific feminists to reflect on key issues paramount to gender equality and women’s human rights and come together with strong, focused and accelerated strategies. With the rise of conservative influence and ideologies, women human rights defenders are more at threat and it’s important now more than ever to amplify our issues. The Pacific Feminist Forum continues to be a platform for fostering diversity, connection and intergenerational leadership within Pacific feminist movements at the national and regional level.
The 2nd PFF was supported by the Australian Government through the We Rise Coalition, Fiji Women’s Fund, Mama Cash and the UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office.
Yasmine Bjornum attended the forum and participated in a panel discussion with other feminists from Vanuatu to explore “What Does It Mean To Be A Feminist in Vanuatu?” This is her speech in full.
Hello everyone, thank you all for coming today. It is a real honor to be here at the forum with all you amazing women from across the Pacific. My name is Yasmine Bjornum and I am the founder of Sista. We are a feminist organization that uses arts, media and communications at the core of our work to inform and empower women and girls, raise awareness and advocate on issues that affect them.
For example Sista recently held a photo exhibition on International Women’s Day to promote self-love and self-care. By using the approach of a photo exhibition, we were able to draw in a diverse crowd, including men who would generally otherwise not be interested in ‘women’s issues’. We took photos of familiar women that everyone in Port Vila knows but don’t personally know much about, from the lady who sells phone data on the street corner to the CEO of Vanuatu Tourism, and we asked them what they loved about themselves.
The reason why we asked that question is because we recognized that we live in a world where the workload of women is so heavy and the expectations of women are so high, it is so easy to find fault in ourselves rather than celebrate who we are. We thought the exhibition would be a good opportunity to start changing the narrative about how we see ourselves.
Especially in Vanuatu, a deeply patriarchal society where it’s common for men, even those in senior government positions and who are apparently highly educated, to reason that women should not be in leadership positions because ‘God has made woman to be the helper of man’ or that a woman’s role is in the home or that kastom says that women cannot be part of decision making. It is common for women to internalize those misogynistic beliefs and to believe that is what our value is reduce to – just someone who takes care of others, does what their told and whose voice does not matter.
By having an exhibition that promoted self-love and self-care, it inspired other women to think about what they loved about themselves too. We at Sista believe that by knowing your worth, you can start to find your voice and therefore you begin to claim space and claim your rights, which can be challenge especially if you live in a country where space is not easily given to women. So this wasn’t just an ordinary exhibition – surprise to the boys and men that came along! We leveraged the exhibition to not only promote self-love but to also explore many underlying issues that affect women from the burden of unpaid childcare and domestic work to the lack of women in decision-making spaces.
So that basically gives you an idea of what Sista does. We want people to think critically about gender equality and to introduce them to feminism but through an innovative approach and it seems that using arts, media and communications is an ideal tool to do so in this modern, technology age.
When I started Sista in 2016, my goal was to provide a space that would empower and celebrate Ni-Vanuatu women by providing information and resources through an online platform. Just a year before I had dropped out of university to prepare for an unplanned pregnancy with someone who I was not in a serious relationship with. Becoming a single mother was the beginning of my journey as a feminist.
It became immediately evident to me that society had different expectations for him than they had for me. I was not only expected to take full responsibility but I was also the one that people judged and shamed. During that time, I thought my heart and my soul got broken. And when my daughter came along, my body got broken too. But now I don’t think my heart and soul got broken, I think it got opened.
I became aware of what many women around the world face. And I also became aware of how privileged I was to be able to CHOOSE to become a single mum and know that I would be supported.
While I was born and raised in Vanuatu – my Dad immigrated to Vanuatu the year we gained independence in 1980 and my Mum came soon after, I got my Australian passport after I finished high school. So when I became pregnant, I was already living overseas and able to access resources such as quality health care and welfare benefits that my Ni-Vanuatu passport would otherwise not allow me to.
In Vanuatu a single woman who is dealing with an unplanned pregnancy faces stigma and discrimination. There is no quality healthcare, abortion is criminalized, there is no welfare system and after the child is born, you can expect 1000vt, approximately $20 Fijian dollars, a week in child maintenance. This rate has not changed since Independence almost forty years ago and does not reflect the living standards we have today. Just another reason why we need women in decision-making spaces!
When I made the decision to move back to Vanuatu to live with my current partner, I wanted to create a platform where Ni-Vanuatu woman can make informed decisions to be able to live a life of dignity. Because I know that if I did not have the privilege of having a dual passport, I believe that my story would be very different. At the time I was very vulnerable and needed support and I got it. How many Ni-Vanuatu girls have been just as vulnerable and did not get the support they needed?
In Vanuatu I couldn’t find information that was easily accessible, I couldn’t see stories that would inspire women and girls, I couldn’t find a place that brought women and girls together, to share together, laugh together, cry together, and that’s why Sista was born. I wanted to specifically target Ni-Vanuatu women and for them to see themselves in the media, and not through a Eurocentric, western lens. How many of us have opened a mainstream magazine and seen white girls talking about their health or their beauty routine or their lifestyle and it pays no relevance to the reality that we live in as coloured women? Yes an Australian magazine can talk generally about what kind of contraceptives is available, but it provides no context to what women in Vanuatu face when accessing them. About the shame of going into a clinic, about how Vanuatu is a Christian country and abstinence is promoted, about how its common for partners to not want their girlfriends to use contraceptives because they think their girlfriend will cheat on them and think it promotes adultery.
I also knew I was in a position to talk about these things more freely that my indigenous sisters. Unlike them, I did not face any cultural barriers, I did not have a chief or extended family to answer to and I was not pressured to follow Christian values. These are perhaps the greatest barriers to gender equality in my country and these barriers are quite complex to navigate.
From what I’ve witnessed in Vanuatu, women are shown respect by men with set terms and conditions, and those terms and conditions mean conforming to gender norms. And if you step outside those norms, be prepared to be vilified as someone who has no respect for kastom or for challenging the word of the Bible. It’s a tough place to be, especially when community is so important in Vanuatu and you don’t want to be seen as disrespectful.
Sista has used social media strategically to discuss feminism and this has meant the conversation has been ongoing with people, who are mostly men, which think that we are being anti-men. I have been fortunate that most of the conversations have turned out positive and many people have told me that they have learnt so much about feminism by the dialogue that goes on through Sista’s Facebook page. There is a younger generation of tech-savvy women who are becoming increasingly aware of their rights and yet there is a big gap between the younger generation of women and older generation of women.
Members of the older generation do not make young women feel welcome in their space. Next year Vanuatu is holding its national elections and while the older generation is trying to advocate for 50/50 equal representation in parliament, they do not consult with the younger generation, let alone provide mentorship to accelerate the women’s movement or just a space for young women to contribute their thoughts or even their skills and expertise to assist.
The younger generation does not disagree with them openly – again, it boils down to not wanting to being seen as disrespectful. I have personally challenged women’s leaders, especially when they have engaged in victim blaming or discriminated against the LGBT community and hold traditional values that are quite patriarchal, but that is because of my privilege of being a non-indigenous Ni-Vanuatu. They just think I have western values and I’ve rarely been confronted, except maybe once or twice.
In general, I have openly identified as a feminist and advocated for women’s rights and mostly been received positively. If there has been negative commentary, it has been behind my back unlike the only other ‘open’ feminist I know in Vanuatu, the founder of the Vanuatu Feminist Library Stephanie Ephraim Lekal, who is not here today, and who has been harassed and bullied both online and in her day to day life for expressing the exact same sentiments that I have. She is an indigenous Ni-Vanuatu and while I can’t speak for her, I understand that her feminist journey has been more complex than mine.
It has been helpful that organizations such as CARE have slowly started to introduce the ideology of feminism in their work and provided a safe space for women who identify as feminists. Slowly, slowly, I can see that we are making progress to create change for the women of Vanuatu but we still have a long way to go, especially in terms of addressing kastom and Christian barriers. And those are things I don’t have an answer for and hope that over the next few days, I can learn from everyone here.
Thank you for listening.
For more information about the 2nd Pacific Feminist Forum, click here.