By Yasmine Bjornum, Sista editor. Photo credits: Solaye Snider, John Kelleher, Yasmine Bjornum.
When Ms. Dorosday Kenneth Watson became the Director of the Department of Women’s Affairs in 2009, she had been working in public service for almost two decades.
As Vanuatu’s first female government department director, she held posts as the Director of the Department of Fisheries and the Director of the Department of Agriculture before entering her current role, leading the Department of Women’s Affairs. At present, she is the only female government department director in Vanuatu.
“I didn’t know anything about gender before I started working in women’s affairs,” she admits. “It requires a different way of thinking and working. Advancing the status of women is not a stand-alone issue to be handled by a single department – the responsibility has to be shared by everyone.”
By everyone, Ms. Kenneth Watson means mainstreaming gender in all legislation, policies, programs and services delivered by government, and working strategically with NGOs and the private sector to achieve common goals for gender equality.
In her opening address at a pre-conference consultation of the 13th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women and the 6th Meeting of Pacific Ministers for Women in 2017, she posed a series of questions to civil society participants.
“The theme for this year’s conference is women’s economic empowerment. I want to know what we will do differently this time,” she said. “We have signed commitments, formed action plans and developed policies to advance the status of women. Why is there no change? We are still dealing with the same issues from ten years ago. We have to ask each other – what do we really want to see? What is our common goal? Are we able to collaborate to achieve it?”
The Triennial Conference of Pacific Women
Although not called Triennial, the first meeting of Pacific Women was held in Tahiti, French Polynesia, in 1981. It followed a meeting of the South Pacific Commission (SPC) the year before (1980) in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where mostly male government representatives were discussing programs for women. PNG women’s groups, led by women such as Kila Amini, disrupted the meeting to protest the lack of representation of women and demanded a regional meeting of women to review and discuss their own needs.
The meeting in Tahiti was the first time the Micronesian women met their southern counterparts and French speakers met with the English speakers. One of the recommendations of the first Pacific Women’s meeting was the formation of the Pacific Women’s Bureau and the establishment of regular regional meetings to review the progress of women.
Since then the Triennial has brought together policy makers, academics, and civil societies to create a forum for constructive dialogue on the role and place of gender in the development processes of the Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs). Identifying the challenges and making recommendations for the future, the theme for 2017 was ‘women’s economic empowerment.’
Although PICTs have adopted regional and international instruments to progress gender equality, women in the Pacific region continue to be economically underrepresented due to discriminatory laws and cultural norms that place unrealistic expectations on women’s responsibilities for home and family care. In Vanuatu, a country where there are no women in parliament, women represent 36% of the private sector and 39% of the public sector with one in five working women having savings in the bank.
The 2017 Triennial in Suva, Fiji, offered the ideal opportunity for Vanuatu to inform regional policy to advance women’s economic empowerment. The government of Vanuatu, led by Ms. Kenneth Watson and government policy analyst, John Ezra, considered the perspectives from the delegation of civil society representatives to carry into policy discussions. The delegation included Vanuatu Women’s Centre, Vanuatu Young Women for Change, Vanuatu Disability Promotion and Advocacy Association, World Vision, ActionAid, Oxfam, CARE, VPride and Mammas English Class.
Ms Kenneth Watson, whose department has one of the smallest budget allocations in government, is calling for an integrated approach to accelerate progress on women’s economic empowerment and gender equality. For meaningful change to occur, Ms. Kenneth Watson says that resources and knowledge have to be shared and people need to work together. As the lead of the Gender and Protection cluster, her department has seen first-hand how strategic partnerships between government and civil society organizations can be effective to deliver gender-related activities during disasters and peacetime.
Bringing everyone to the table – the game changer.
“If we work together, we can get more things done,” Ms. Kenneth Watson says simply. Recognizing the valuable contributions of civil society organizations, Ms. Kenneth Watson recommended they be given an observer seat at the ministerial table at the 2017 Triennial in Suva, Fiji, which saw more than 250 women from nineteen Pacific countries and territories come together.
The historic recommendation was accepted and Fijian human rights activist and political advisor for DIVA for Equality, Noelene Nabulivou, became the first representative of civil society to sit with country heads of delegation, including President Hilda Heine of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the first woman to lead a Pacific nation. To accommodate Francophone and Anglophone, two seats were rotated throughout the five-day conference for civil society representation.
“Leaders of gender equality are willing to take chances. If you’re not willing to take a chance, we can’t make systematic changes,” said Ms. Nabulivou. “Director Dorosday Kenneth Watson was the first person to put it forward and it’s often that one step that encourages others to step forward too. It is a groundbreaking opportunity to have a seat at the main table and we see that as a precedent being set, not just in the Triennial, but in other intergovernmental spaces in the region too.”
The 2017 Triennial also set another precedent in terms of government transparency. Jemima Garrett, a senior journalist who has spent more than 30 years covering the Pacific, said it was the first time in the history of her career that she had seen journalists present during ministerial discussions and that the transparency was ‘a testament to women’s leadership.’
The end result of the 2017 Triennial was the collective endorsement of a plan to accelerate implementation of gender equality commitments made by Pacific Island countries and territories at the global, regional and national level through the adoption of the Pacific Platform for Action for gender equality and women’s human rights 2018–2030 (PPA).
“I felt that we addressed issues robustly at this Triennial and that was because of the way SPC organized it. The hard questions were asked – what are we really trying to change here?” Ms. Kenneth Watson says. “The organizers came to the core of what the challenges are and provided a space for us to address it effectively by bringing together a range of ministries, not just the body responsible for women’s affairs, and used policy design to plan the way forward. Women becoming economically empowered is not just a women’s issue – it is crucial for the sustainable development of a country.”
Lessons from her father
Ms. Kenneth Watson says the biggest challenge in her work is trying to transform the way people perceive gender roles. Cultural attitudes that discriminate against women and create dissent amongst women’s groups have often been a hindrance to progress.
“The problem I see is that people focus on themselves too much. They don’t realize that by concentrating on serving others, it will benefit you too. That is what I learnt from my father,” she says.
Born in Uripiv, Malekula, Ms. Kenneth Watson came from a family of four sisters and two brothers. Their father, a man of strong Christian values, would tend three gardens – one for the house, one for the church and one for others.
“The third garden was for people who were in need,” Ms. Kenneth Watson says with a big smile on her face. “I can still see him now, cutting a bunch of bananas and putting them by the roadside and telling people to come help themselves.”
From the time she was two years old, she recalls hearing her father enforce the importance of girls attending school. “He said ‘I don’t care if it costs me, but everybody has to go to school. It’s important for both girls and boys to learn’,” says Ms. Kenneth Watson, whose male siblings were born after the girls. “This was during a time in the community where if a choice had to be made, the son would be chosen to go to school. For our family, there was no choice, both girls and boys had to go.”
Calling her father “the most important person in our lives”, the children listened to everything he said. “But he also allowed us the opportunity to speak too,” she says fondly. “He taught us humility, a key value I hold dear in my heart. He treated the girls and boys equally so I think if we do take that at a national level, there shouldn’t be any losses for Vanuatu. I feel that we are living in a time where the government is seeing that.”
Until missionaries came to Malekula to set up a school and church, Ms. Kenneth Watson’s father had been brought up with kastom. It wasn’t until she was older and going through her own personal journey of transformation into women’s leadership that she began to appreciate the evolution of her father from a kastom man into a Christian man.
“If you talk to him now, he will say, ‘I have come to know the light and will never go back’. He really feels that Christianity is a better life than before. In our family, we have generational writing on tombs that are inscribed with the words, ‘We have come to the Lord never to return’,” she says. “He said they lived once in ignorance and that ‘culture is good for certain things, but I will raise my children with Christian values’. We left it behind and have been reborn. We are supposed to advance together.”
After she completed high school at Malapoa College, Ms. Kenneth Watson studied economics and business management at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. When she returned home, she began work at the Department of Fisheries and was happy to find a job that reminded her of her childhood in the outer islands. After moving up the ranks to head leadership positions in both the Department of Fisheries and the Department of Agriculture, Ms. Kenneth Watson embraced the challenge of working at the Department of Women’s Affairs.
In 2012 she was recognized for being at the forefront of gender issues in Vanuatu and was awarded the “Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite” by the French Government in recognition of her dedication to the strengthening of women’s rights and to reducing domestic violence against women, children and Persons with Disability.
In 2013 she lobbied the all-male parliament to consider a bill for temporary special measures for women’s representation in politics. Legislation was unanimously passed mandating a 30% temporary special quota for women’s representation in Municipal Councils and she lobbied for the job of Deputy Mayor of Port Vila to be set aside for a female candidate. To ensure the success of women candidates, Ms. Kenneth Watson trained them and provided mentorship in addition to her official duties.
In the 2015 municipal elections in Luganville, Vanuatu’s second major town centre, Ms. Kenneth Watson also helped in candidate preparations, which saw four women elected to reserved seats and one woman elected to an open seat.
In 2016, she was honoured as the Vanuatu nominee for the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in recognition of her work advocating for women becoming empowered in the political, economic, and civic arenas.
Through strategic partnerships and following the national policy direction, Ms. Kenneth Watson is confident that the status of women will advance. Although she knows the road is challenging, she quotes with great optimism, “If you want to have something you have never had, you have to do something you have never done.”
By Yasmine Bjornum, Sista editor and Advocacy and Communications Coordinator of ActionAid Vanuatu.
Photo credits: Solaye Snider, John Kelleher, Yasmine Bjornum