Traditional roles of women and expected participation in customary obligations.

9th July 2019

By Aliti Vunisea

Women Economic Empowerment works well when built into existing cultural and social structures and institutions. Breaking down cultural and social barriers that remain in Pacific Island countries and in Fiji is one of the key challenges that when addressed appropriately, result in the unlocking of potential areas of engagement, decision making and full participation of women in income generation.

The question is how do you move women from these traditional roles and obligations “vaka I tavi” to market or enterprise attitude. Many women sell at markets every weekend, going through the laborious task of gathering products for 2-3 days before coming to the markets and sitting it out for a day or two to try and sell whatever they have.

There exist platforms of engagement at community level and these offer entry points, opportunities and spaces where women can be usefully engaged- these engagements at the community level is more productive with women in their safe spaces, traditional spaces and progressively finding ways of being included, represented and leaders in these platforms.

Changes in women’s engagement in economic activities are linked to i) changes in perceptions about women’s roles (where people see them in a different space and how they have managed to assume responsibility for these spaces through economic empowerment.

How do we transform women who provide the support for families from being traditional users and managers of resources, to be interested in a totally new structure of work that will shift the way they work and think. Photo: Aliti Vunisea

Rise Beyond the Reef a n NGO based in Ba for example, work with women in their home settings to improve the quality of handicrafts, introducing colour and changes to materials customarily used to ensure products made meet consumers demands. These handicrafts are bought from source- thus introducing new marketing strategies which support women and lessen burden of selling at markets.

Economic empowerment and engagement in activities, meetings outside of the community space- significantly sends the message that women can identify and find niches, can maximize their engagement and monies earned is not for household only but is distributed to the broader community and there is recognition of their contribution and valued as community members.

Decision making at household level is at different levels and there is a lot of progress at this level, and this has translated to the community level- and to the tikina and provincial levels.

The women of Namuaimada in Ra, sell nama ( sea grapes) to the Suva market and have perfected a supply chain using their own traditional links, the goodwill and engagement of the bus driver and bus checker, wheel barrow boys in the Nausori and Suva markets and the middle sellers.

An existing value chain arranged informally through women organizing themselves and relying on the goodwill and trust with the players along the supply chain. Photo: Aliti Vunisea

The women in Namuaimada go early each morning in groups to the outer reefs- near Malake island and other fishing areas in neighboring qoliqoli areas to dive for nama. The groups share the cost of the boat. On their return the nama is home processed (hand processed)- nama left to sit in basins and covered up with blankets for several hours. Then the nama are filled in buckets either the same day or the next morning and loaded in the bus to Suva. The bus driver and checker who charge for each bucket know exactly where to drop off these buckets in the Nausori in Suva markets where wheelbarrow boys pick the buckets up and deliver to the middle sellers who have ordered the nama. All the players in this supply chain know each other and have unwritten rules of operation, based on trust.

On Saturdays when the bus driver comes past Namuaimada village on the way back from Suva, he stops at the village and drops off the cost of all the nama he had taken during the week to the two markets- The women say they had never received any late payments nor had there been any shortage in payment. Informal systems women have set up for themselves work. The challenge is in identifying these existing mechanisms, networks, supply and value chain and strengthen them.

Women market vendors and those who sell fish products have come a long way in how they sell and distribute products around the country. Most of the systems and linkages used to distribute products around the country are still based on kinship, on traditional knowledge and norms, and have helped women build a niche for themselves. Working on Women Economic Empowerment need a better understanding of the systems and networks and mechanisms that are in place. Women have gained empowerment through their marketing and economic engagement and have the lessons learnt that we could learn from as practitioners.

*Aliti Vunisea is one of the founding members of the Women in Fisheries Network – Fiji. This article was part of her contribution during the Pacific Women Economic Empowerment Forum held at the University of the South Pacific in May.