Island Women – Leading the way to a sustainable future


Under a bright green shade canopy, new saplings are growing in a local tree nursery built by community members from Analghawat, on the island of Aneitium, as part of a reforestation project. Helping take the lead on the project are young women from the area, including Anita Namuri, an environmental monitor with Wan Smolbag’s Vanua’tai Resource Monitors Network.

I wanted to help create a tree nursery in our community because there is a lot of pressure here to overharvest our natural resources, including cutting down too many trees. The first step was to hold community gatherings to raise awareness about the project and increase participation in forestry conservation, so that every person might feel that they could make a difference.” Anita is active in her community, promoting conservation initiatives and developing sustainable eco-tourism projects. In addition to this reforestation project, she leads workshops on shell crafting and weaving, helping women develop locally crafted products for the tourism industry that reduce their dependency on imported (and largely plastic) goods and help provide sustainable livelihoods.

Far to the north on the island of Mota Lava in Torba Province, Sophie Frank and her local women’s environmental association recently created the first women-run conservation area in Vanuatu, which protects seagrass and a species of clam important as a local food source. Sophie first became active in environmental conservation in 2015, when she had the opportunity to attend a workshop on climate change adaptation hosted by the Nguna-Pele Marine and Land Protected Area Network. She learned many new things, and as she puts it, “when I returned to Mota Lava, I was no longer content to just stand by. I had to put into action all the new things I’d learned.”

Anita and Sophie are among a growing number of women across Vanuatu who are stepping into roles as environmental leaders in their communities, responding to climate change and other threats to their natural resources and food security. In fact, they are among the millions of women globally who are joining and leading movements to protect the environment. The importance of women’s roles in safeguarding the present and future well-being of their communities is reflected in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which was adopted by world leaders in 2015. This agenda consists of seventeen goals for progress, and woven through each one is the recognition that achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment is integral to ensuring justice, economies that work for all, and environmental well-being today and into the future.

The path forward for women, however, is far from a straight or smooth one. Research across the globe reveals that women are often disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental degradation. Often, when they try to become environmental leaders and advocates, they face huge challenges, such as risk of gossip, outright criticism, and sometimes even threats and acts of violence. These tactics can be used to silence or intimidate them, preventing them from coming forward into leadership roles. The hurdles are many, but their contributions are vital.

As Dorosday Kenneth Watson, Director at the Department of Women’s Affairs, emphasizes: “Women’s leadership in addressing climate change is very important. Women are at the heart of communities; they are often intimately aware of what is going on around them socially as well as in the natural environments upon which they rely so greatly. When women are given the opportunity to lead, they bring all of that knowledge to bear.” This holistic view captures the reality that for women, supporting the well-being of their families, communities, and culture into the future means that their empowerment and environmental action go hand in hand.

Samantha Rovan, a young mother, teacher, and new environmental leader from Gaua echoes this concern: “If I’m not part of this conservation effort, then maybe in the future, there will no longer be any crabs or fish for my children to eat. They won’t be able to experience seeing a turtle swimming on the reef. I’m glad I’m part of this environmental effort to conserve our resources so that future generations will be able to enjoy and benefit from them.”

The focus on food is often a major entry point for women into conservation. Rolenas Tavue Baereloe, Senior Conservation Officer in the Division of Biodiversity at the Department of Environmental Protection and Conservation explains the important connection between food and environmental action this way: “Typically most workshops and meetings are attended by men and usually men are making all the decisions. The fact is, however, women are major users of natural resources. The reason is that every day, women are thinking, ‘What will I feed my children? They must have food today, they must have food tomorrow…’ So because women play a huge role in resource harvesting, they must be involved in resource management as well.”

In Vanuatu, one important venue that helps build women’s capacity as environmental champions is Wan Smolbag’s Vanua’tai Resource Monitors Network. Started as a turtle monitoring program over 25 years ago, monitors across the islands now address all manner of environmental concerns from ridge to reef. In recent years, numbers of women monitors have been on the increase. Anita, Sophie, and Samantha are all members of this network. The local nonprofit organization, Island Reach (IR), which partners with Wan Smolbag’s Vanua’tai Network to reach remote communities and deliver workshops as well as facilitate peer-to-peer exchanges, has been closely involved in working with these three women and many others around the country. In 2017, IR received a grant from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, as well as additional funding from Global Greengrants and the UNDP Global Environment Facility, to help support and expand women’s participation in conservation actions. This funding helped IR facilitate workshops for women in Tafea and Torba provinces, assisted in bringing more women to the Vanua’tai Annual General Meeting, and expanded the participation of women in environmental activities around the archipelago. Another product of this funding was a short documentary about women environmental monitors in Vanuatu which can be viewed at the Island Reach You Tube page.

Increasingly, women’s environmental leadership and capacity is being more publicly recognized in Vanuatu. Over the past year, two environmental networks – the northwest branch of the Tasi-Vanua network in Efate and the new Tanna Usiusi Environment Network on Tanna – both elected women as their Chairpersons. Leisavi Joel from Moso island is a long-standing environmental monitor with the Tasi-Vanua network of north Efate. Active in many projects, Leisavi received training in marine monitoring with the Rescue Program and went on to organize an event with local students to teach them about the importance of environmental stewardship so that they might grow up as engaged conservationists in their community. Jocelyne Usua, Chairlady of the Tanna Usiusi network, joined the Vanua-tai Network in 2017 and came to the AGM that year to present a workshop on gender roles. Jocelyne is a vocal proponent of taking a close look at just what traditions around gender Ni-Vanuatu need to hold on to and what they need to let go of if they are to confront the tremendous challenges at hand.

For many women, finding one’s voice and exercising it in a public arena opens new, uncharted territory.  Sairin Naomi, from the island of Mota, is new to this kind of activity and leadership and has found that getting support from male leaders in her community has been a challenge. Sairin is starting slowly, sharing her new knowledge with members of her family to help them better understand the issues at stake and consider what her new learning can contribute. Foremost, giving women opportunities to meet, learn together, and discuss activities and challenges is critical to building their confidence and leadership capacity. As Director Dorosday Kenneth Watson notes, “Leadership must be practiced. It must be exercised. As women get more opportunities to do this, it will be revealed how important their leadership is to addressing all tet changes that are happening so quickly in our world today.”

Most women environmentalists point out that their collaborations together make it easier for them to move forward. Sophie from Mota Lava explains that “When I work in a group of women, together we become stronger and our network becomes stronger. If I were working alone, I couldn’t get as much done. I wouldn’t be able to achieve the same kinds of projects.”

Leisavi adds that women have opportunities to empower other women in their communities: “In the beginning I only worked with women in my own community. However, now as I go to more workshops and training sessions, I’m involved with a lot of different women. This is a really good experience….Those of us who have the chance to go outside our communities can gather new information and skills that we can bring back to share with women in our communities and to raise awareness.

While recognizing the importance of opportunities for women to work together and learn from one another, all the women understand the value of building good working relationships with male counterparts and male leaders in their communities. To be most effective, to build the greatest community resilience to changes taking place, collaboration across all social spheres is critical. Anita from Aneitium talks about how some of the different roles for men and women mean that working in partnership with a male Vanua-tai counterpart helps ensure that their environmental work is much more likely to succeed: “As a woman there are things I cannot do and places I cannot go. For example, I cannot stand and talk in the Nakamal. But Tony [Anita’s counterpart] can. Likewise, there are places that Tony can’t go, but I can. Working together makes our reach that much greater.” Pauline Kawas from Tanna concurs: “A lot of time, men think very highly of themselves and women are lower down. But I think this environmental network can lift women up. And we can all work together and make our group stronger, and make our country stronger too.”

Challenging socially defined norms about gender roles is never easy, no matter what part of the world you might find yourself in. In Vanuatu, some men may welcome women’s participation to an extent, but then feel uncomfortable when certain traditions or common practices seem threatened. As in many other countries, when women are not typically landowners, they are often excluded from decision-making functions. As a further illustration of this divide, there are still no women elected to the national parliament in Vanuatu. On the other hand, there are many examples in the county of close working collaborations between men and women, such as around subsistence activities, and both genders are widely recognized as holding vital traditional ecological knowledge that needs to be protected and transmitted to the next generation. To come back to Anita’s emphasis, the way to ensure that Vanuatu is strong and resilient in the face of challenges is to ensure that every person feels that they can make a difference.

The handful of women in this article, along with all the other women who stand with them, are the leaders that they have always been. They are upholding longstanding values by trying to ensure that their families are nourished; by passing on knowledge to the next generations; and by looking out for their communities. In these way, they are, and have always been, leaders in protecting and promoting Vanuatu’s cultural vitality and resilience. They are also part of a fortifying movement of women around the globe who are at the forefront of climate change action and environmental initiatives. The contributions of Ni-Vanuatu women are becoming more visible and recognized for the important role they play. Whether restoring forests, helping replant reefs, promoting sustainable livelihoods, or helping identify areas for conservation to protect critical biodiversity, these women are part of building a strong Vanuatu for today and for the future.

Story by Janis Steele, photography courtesy of Island Reach.

Janis Steele, PhD, is co-director of Island Reach, a locally registered charitable organization partnering with communities across Vanuatu to support grassroots environmental actions and facilitate peer-to-peer networking. Janis holds a Bachelor’s degree in Human Ecology, and PhD in Cultural Anthropology. Her research interests over the years have included cross-cultural mediation, agroecology, women’s issues, and Indigenous cinema. She has worked as a documentary filmmaker and adjunct college professor, created and run a forest farm, and co-founded Island Reach to engage the crisis of collapsing biocultural diversity. The project reflects her passion for focusing on the connections and interdependence between people and their natural environments.