Vanuatu on Independence: Forty Years Young

Vanuatu and Climate Change

Forty years of Independence from British and French! Its the year of 2020.

How far has Vanuatu vented through the years? What have we achieved of forty years of so-called independence? Here’s my thought-processing illustration.

As we progressed through the years of being a baby, to a toddler and transitioned into a teenager, we still leaned heavily on foreign aid. Through and through. The young adult years were almost tragic as we went through many phases of (what I called) teenage rebellion that grew into our thirties; political turmoil, nepotism, corruption, lack of leadership and the pronounced ignorance of our Women Voices on the political fronts. Now maturing into our forties, a pandemic and a tropical cyclone of category five threatened our livelihoods along with recurring magnitudes of earthquakes. These disasters tested our resiliency, our livelihoods and our ability to show empathy and leadership skills.

The world is still watching.

Critically watching.

Himalaya Pandemic
The Covid-19 Global Pandemic has allowed our mother earth to heal and breathe. Mount Everest in a captured panorama from the Kathmandu Valley with breathtaking views. PC: Republic World

It is frustrating. For such a little country with a population of 305,000 people, one would think our political leaders would get their acts together. We have had disaster after disaster. Be it earthquakes, volcanoes, rising sea levels, tsunamis, tropical storms, diseases outbreaks, pests infestations; Vanuatu certainly had it’s fair share of natural and health disasters.

The recent Category 5 TC Harold in April 2020 saw 23 people from 3 families seek refuge in these caves for sheltering on Malo in the Santa Province. The cave can provide a capacity of up to 400 people for safe sheltering. PC: George Temar

The latest being Tropical Cyclone Harold, a category five storm that ripped through our Northern Islands. Our locals were delayed getting the basic necessities of life, and to be able to sustain themselves with a bit of humanitarian assistance. Our government lacked appropriate vehicles to survey the geographically isolated islands for the scale and magnitude of the disaster; from Northern to the Southern part of the nation we see and hear of the lack of access to basic amenities, good sanitation, and basic infrastructure. It’s that delayed lack of leadership and coordinated management from our Politicians that even infuriates most of us millennials.

We have had forty years of Independence.

Forty years of planning. We’ve only acquired one helicopter for the whole country as reported by Dan McGarry on the Good Will Hunters Podcast.

And no pilot.

Pathetic.

We still fail to plan ahead to improve our local response and capability. We fail to embrace science. We fail to encourage, promote and invest in the education system. Researchers are essential to produce competent and experienced advisors who can advise our leaders to lead strategically. We fail to acknowledge and let leadership be guided by science and the models. We fail to invest in academic researchers.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand; the Right Hon Jacinda Ardern (left) and her Chief Science Advisor Professor Juliet Gerrard (right) along with Dr Ashley Bloomfield and a multi-disciplinary team of specialists who have led New Zealand safely through the Global Covid-19 Pandemic Crisis. PC: University of Auckland

Our people suffered. Our FACTS assessments are delayed because our government does not have enough helicopters and pilots to do the first assessments. We are still calling on our international neighbours to rescue us; multi-laterally and bilaterally. We are still calling on the World Bank to be our main parents.

Sadly our status, it feels has not adequately reached that independent status.

How frustrating!

Vanuatu Women Leaders

For forty years largely, the Women of Vanuatu were suppressed. Our first Vanuatu Woman Parliamentarian Grace Mera Molisa; a poet, publisher and a political figure did her part. She passed on the baton but sadly, we dropped it. The recent election saw no women voted into the Vanuatu Parliament.

How agonising to watch!

According to the World Classification of Women in National Parliaments, Vanuatu ranked the last with Papua New Guinea and the Federated States of Micronesia. What a national shame!

Rwanda had been leading with record-breaking 64 percent of seat for women candidates and it is a country Vanuatu should take learning priorities from. Recently Marshall Islands elected it’s first female President. The Pacific is celebrating. As a woman, I am celebrating. We needed more women voices in Independent Pacific Nations.

Women take 67% seats in Parliament in Rwanda, the country with the most female representation for women voices in the world. PC: Newtimes

Vanuatu has a National Council of Women. As a young woman of a different generation, let me acknowledge the importance this organisation strives to represent. Its main purpose has been to unite all women of Vanuatu regardless of colour, educational status, religion, customs and tribal origins, political status and island origin. We desperately need a spotlight on this national womens organisation. The organisation responsible for Vanuatu Women. Their rights and a voice that is unique to uphold womens rights. A voice that is representative and unifying to the government and hold them accountable. As conversations and discussions emerge, I’ve often questioned their existence. I’d love to see a unifying voice.

What is their main role in a society and generation that is now leaning towards well-educated? How much voice of influence and narrative do they have in supporting women of this generation to be forward and innovative thinkers, leaders and role models? Where is their support to rural women to run for representatives on political fronts? The support to having training programs for public speaking, critical thinking skills, decision-making and emotional intelligence.

Women will always be questioned on their competency and capabilities. Yes that’s right. But I believe there is a space and huge demand for women leaders. Vanuatu needs this representation even more. Women are better thinkers. They are better managers. They are better planners. They have always been the leaders of thousand households and communities. They have been the responsible ones.

We need a positive narrative. One that boosts womens leadership skills. One that reverses stigmatisation,”that a womans’ place is in the home.” We need a better awareness program that educates men to support our women better, to reduce domestic violence and to collaborate with our decision making processes. And Yasmine Bjornum’s article in the Vanuatu Daily Post just highlights that.

Our responses and leadership should be women-led.

Vanuatu and Disaster Management

Vanuatu needs to provide leadership and management in Disasters without relying heavily on foreign donors. In 2020, I feel Vanuatu’s leadership has come a long way. It has more well-educated Politicians in comparison to the decades of ill-leadership but lacked heavily with women representation. The National Disaster Management Office has stepped up although not quite to an efficient level of being able to deploy resources and manage in a timely manner. Our people are still frustrated and left to vent for themselves after most disasters.

I feel the Vanuatu Red Cross Society has a more effective approach with its leadership that enabled volunteers to deliver the basics to our most vulnerable population.

Vanuatu Red Cross
Vanuatu Red Cross Society with it’s humanitarian aid distribution on Pentecost Island. PC: Vanuatu Red Cross

Our health teams despite being so under-resourced and funded do the best they could to attend to our peoples health and well being. I honour our local nurses and doctors, their mana and their self-less sacrifices. The Vanuatu Mental Health Team has gone from strength to strength to support the mental health of our people in urban and rural communities-we have recognised the strength of our communities and invested in the mental health of it’s people.

TC Harold
TC Harold 2020; the devastation is seen in the environmental impacts. PC: Dan McGarry

Our Vanuatu Meteorology Team has also been strengthened. On social media they are active and have given us thorough and valuable information about the weather and the cyclone trails. They share complex climate information about the global weather too to help our farmers understand and take action for the daily livelihoods.

Vanuatu and Traditional Economy

The Vanuatu Department of Agriculture has been a strengthening organisation. With its Agricultural College at heart focusing on an extensive training program for our locals, it is reassuring to know that our government has embraced our traditional economy. This traditional economy is Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries which has always been our organic and subsistence way of living. Of great note is, in the wake of this global pandemic, Vanuatu has automatically switched to a traditional economy instead. It has been our resiliency and I believe if we focus on creating and maintaining small scale businesses, we will survive any disaster.

The insightful and delightful podcast on Melanesian Women Today highlighted this issue. Our veteran Anthropologist Dr Krik Huffman discussed these traditional economy over the years and emphasised the importance of traditional economy, which we seemed to have lacked during these modern days as we embraced tourism and western economy.

Dr Huffman challenges us to seriously think about life, what’s really important in life in a global pandemic. Money should not be a priority. Land should. Rightly so. Our former government and Minister of Agriculture Hon Matai Seremiah had a great vision and leadership and invested in the ministry to improve its outcomes. We still have a long way to go. But we invested in a different kind of wealth.

New Generation of Vanuatu Leaders

Our Member of Parliament, the trailblazer the Honourable Ralph Regenvanu, now the Leader of Opposition has persistently made his mark and presence felt and known on the younger generations of Vanuatu like us millennial. He showed us that we can make a powerful difference to creating change and bringing about positive influence to our people when we have the right mindset and necessary support.  His presence on social media is constant and he is open to constructive criticism. My conversations with him over dinner focused on two questions. Firstly why he entered Vanuatu Politics and secondly was there ever going to be a place for us females in Vanuatu Parliament. His response stuck with me.

“When you work in Vanuatu and you’re frustrated with systems that do not allow flow, you do something about it. You go to the highest position and make the changes there. It flows through the different levels. You stand for what is right, serve the people and implement the right changes.”

Going Forward

Yasmine Bjornum’s description of what a Vanuatu Woman Leader would look or be like is emphasised here. It’s definitely food for thought for us women of this generation. 

The ideal woman candidate would be someone who is God-fearing and custom abiding. She must have a good relationship with her husband (actually, she must have a husband in the first place!) and be respected by her community. She must be kind, faithful and humble — traits that are deeply rooted in harmful and outdated gender stereotypes. If she steps outside of this box, she is not worthy of being a leader. She must also be well liked among women and be able to ‘unite’ them.

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