Academic journal article Oceania

Church Women's Groups and the Empowerment of Women in Solomon Islands

Academic journal article Oceania

Church Women's Groups and the Empowerment of Women in Solomon Islands

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

It would be easy for an outsider searching for examples of innovative feminist development initiatives to dismiss the significance of church women's groups, particularly if the groups' activities focus on spiritual growth, sewing, and social work. This is exactly the focus adopted by many church women's organizations in Solomon Islands and elsewhere in Melanesia and yet they have considerable cultural and practical potential for empowering women. In the highly dispersed rural villages of the Solomons, such groupings offer opportunities for networking, solidarity building, and non-formal education (Scheyvens 1993, 1995b). (1) In addition, several more dynamic church women's organizations have broadened their approach in recent years in an attempt to address the structural disadvantage of Solomon Islands women. This paper provides examples of innovative development strategies initiated by three such organizations during the early 1990s? I argue that with a slight change of tack other church women's groups could play an equally effective role in actively transforming women's lives.

WOMEN'S STATUS IN THE SOLOMON ISLANDS

It is impossible to comment on the contemporary position of women in Solomon Islands society without first reflecting on their indigenous activities and status. Past representations of Melanesian women which portrayed them as appendages of men, or invisible, or only visible as wives and mothers were seriously distorted. Patterns of gender relations varied greatly across the region but, while women's domains were mostly separate from those of men, women were often regarded as equivalent in intrinsic worth and experienced their domains as a source of security, solidarity, and dignity. Men typically held a monopoly on access to public stages but women had their own spheres of influence and control. For example, women were generally aware that their bodies were a source of power essential to the reproduction and social well-being of society (Strathern 1981:187; O'Brien 1984:53-4; Tiffany 1987:338-9; Keesing 1987). Accordingly, Weiner invited scholars to reconsider old theories of male superiority in Melanesia: 'Whether women are publicly valued or privately secluded, whether they control politics, a range of economic commodities, or merely magic spells, they function within that society, not as objects but as individuals with some measure of control' (1976:228).

The establishment of a British Protectorate over the Solomon Islands in 1893 had a multiple impact, both positive and negative, on women's and men's lives and on gender relations, as it did elsewhere in Melanesia (Bennett 1987; Douglas 1999). In terms of benefits, colonial pacification, Christianization, and the monetization of the economy gave women the benefits of living in a society where warfare and violence were not so well tolerated as well as expanded educational and economic opportunities, access to new means of health care, and opportunities to come together in women's groups and develop leadership skills. The cessation of blood-feuding, for example, allowed women to work in safety and travel more freely (Keesing 1985:55). Access to education gave at least some women and girls 'the English-speaking voice to which colonial society (and increasingly their educated menfolk) would listen, [and] it offered them different perspectives on the world' (Bulbeck 1992:228).

Negative impacts of colonization included the fact that outsiders belittled or attempted to outlaw customs or rituals in which women's power was affirmed. Furthermore, through their heavy involvement in agricultural work, women came to be labelled as 'beasts of burden' by Europeans even though gardening was an important source of status and self-esteem for women. Accordingly, the early missionaries' horror at women's heavy workloads led them to design educational programs aimed at confining women to the domestic sphere, as if their involvement in productive activities were demeaning (Ryan 1975:8,19; Bennett 1987:12-13; Jolly and MacIntyre 1989:14; Jolly 1991:35). …

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