WAINIMATE: Valuing Women's Traditional Medicine Knowledge in Fiji

Article excerpt


Kerrie Strathy

On World Health Day 1995, women in Fiji established a grass-roots women's organisation called the Women's Association for Natural Medicinal Therapy (WAINIMATE). WAINIMATE, the Fijian word for medicine, was launched in an effort to promote the use of safe and effective traditional medicines, as well as to encourage the conservation of medicinal plants. These efforts are especially crucial in Fiji because many people live in communities on remote islands where access to modern health services is limited. Where health centres do exist, the supply of medicines is often limited to the three Ps: panadol, pepto bismal, and penicillin.

Although both men and women in Fiji know a number of common herbal treatments, such as the use of guava leaves to treat diarrhea and roman candle leaves to treat fungal infections, these practices tend to be the domain of women more often than men. Women tend to know more medicinal plants than men, and older women tend to know more remedies than younger women.

Interest in regaining knowledge about women's traditional medicine in Fiji emerged during a Women and Forests Workshop held in 1992 immediately following the UN Earth Summit in Rio. Many of the women who took part in the workshop remembered being given traditional or herbal medicines by their grandmothers as they were growing up, but most had forgotten exactly what they were given, what the medicines were for, and how they were prepared. Several of the women who took part in the workshop went on to organise a regional traditional medicine workshop to bring together their sisters from other Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to discuss the status and availability of traditional medicines in other areas of the region.

Since its beginnings, the members of WAINIMATE have carried out village-based workshops and awareness sessions and have decided to visit every village in Fiji in order to compile a directory of traditional healers. They have lobbied the Ministry of Health in Fiji and the World Health Organisation's (WHO) South Pacific Program Office, located in Fiji's capital, Suva. They were also involved in international meetings to discuss issues related to biodiversity conservation and the protection of indigenous knowledge and intellectual property rights. On April 7, 1999, the efforts of WAINIMATE were publicly recognised at the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the WHO. Even more recently, the Fiji Ministry of Health has invited WAINIMATE staff and members to work together in promoting the use of safe and effective traditional medicines.

Women as Medicine Makers not "Witches"

Formal education systems throughout the world tend to dismiss the experiential knowledge held by women and other traditional healers. This attitude has existed for centuries and was especially evident in 15th C Europe where women were burned alive as witches for practising traditional medicine. These knowledgeable women - medicine women and midwives - were perceived as a threat to the male hierarchy and religious leaders. Today, the experiential knowledge held by traditional healers around the world continues to be challenged by religious leaders and western-trained medical practitioners who are similarly trying to maintain their positions of power and control.

In Fiji it is not uncommon to hear people refer to traditional healers as "dauvagunu," a word that conjures up images of witches' potions. This is not surprising given that Christian and colonial leaders went to great efforts to eliminate the practice of traditional medicine in the region, going so far as to adopt legislation to outlaw these practices. Much of the legislation to prohibit the practice of traditional medicine is still on the books despite the fact that there is much scientific and anecdotal evidence to justify traditional practices.

Traditional healers report that they are finding it increasingly difficult to encourage their daughters and granddaughters to become their apprentices. …