Writing our own stories: Pacific Women in security

Podcast EP 26

Title: Writing our own stories: Pacific Women in Security

Akka Rimon [00:00:55] Yuma, greetings and Hello, Olgeta. I wish to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land from which we broadcast today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and also pay our respects to their eldest, past, present and emerging. Today, our security discussion is built on the recent celebration of International Women’s Day. Oftentimes we reflect on this event by sharing stories of success and achievements of women across our Blue Pacific Continent, but also bring to the table issues that we feel are seldom heard. This speaks to the diversity of our Pacific region and of the issues confronting our women today. We appreciate and celebrate these unique differences in a region and a world where difference is valued. I am delighted to welcome to the show today two brilliant women and academics here at the ANU who are also daughters of the Pacific. Dr Gemma Malungahu is a Tongan research fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs. Her background is in health sciences, public health and qualitative research. She undertook her undergraduate studies and the majority of her postgraduate studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and completed her PhD in 2020 titled ‘Too Little Space’. And this, I understand, reflects the experiences and perspectives of housing and housing policy. Tongan families with rheumatic fever in South Auckland and also includes key housing informants. Her research findings supported earlier research that underlies the issue of systemic racism and essentialism that occurs within the socio-political sphere influencing poor decision-making processes. The findings led to the development of a policy framework called the Lolo Na‘ati. Am I saying that correctly Dr Gemma?

Dr Gemma Malungahu [00:02:44] Yes, Lolo Na’ati.

Akka Rimon [00:02:48] Lolo Na’ati model to help improve the decision-making processes and addressing the rights of Pacific peoples to adequate housing and aiming to improve the overall health and well-being of Pacific peoples in North New Zealand and the diaspora in general. Dr Gemma, Welcome to the Pacific Wayfinder.

Dr Gemma Malungahu [00:03:06] Well, a very comprehensive introduction. Mālō. Yeah, very happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Akka Rimon [00:03:14] And I am also delighted to welcome today Dr Theresa Meki, another Pacific Research Fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs and Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific. Theresa completed a PhD with the Department of Pacific Affairs last year. Her research focuses on women’s presence and vote share in Papua New Guinea’s election history. She is interested in elections and women’s political representation in Melanesia more broadly. Prior to commencing her candidature with DPA, Theresa worked as a field producer and research assistant for the DFAT-funded, Pawa Meri film project, a partnership between the Victoria University of Melbourne and Melbourne and the University of Goroka in Papua New Guinea. Dr Theresa, a warm welcome to you also.

Dr Theresa Meki [00:04:00] Good morning. Thank you for having me.

Akka Rimon [00:04:03] Okay, so to kick start our Maroro, as we say in Kiribati, our dialogue or conversation, allow me very quickly to acknowledge the rich backgrounds that you’ve both come from. Dr Gemma with your work in health sciences and qualitative research and Dr Theresa in politics and vote share in Papua New Guinea, these are two distinct areas critical for development and security in our Blue Pacific home, from the lens of your research work. My first question is what is the distinct role that you see women play in national security, in particular, their traditional roles and their contributions to policymaking in the Pacific?

Dr Gemma Malungahu [00:04:43] Yeah. Would you like to go first, Theresa?

Dr Theresa Meki [00:04:45] Oh, no, you first.

Akka Rimon [00:04:47] Whoever feels comfortable.

Dr Gemma Malungahu [00:04:48] It’s a very beautiful question and an important one, as we are all aware usually national security is defined from the traditional perspective of, the importance of military and defence. And as we know and the Pacific, security means a lot more and a lot more than that. It’s a lot broader and a lot more deeper. And it’s connected to who we are as a people. In terms of the role of Pacific women in the context of national security. I feel that as strong and resilient Pacific women we bring to the table very important perspectives aligned with the importance of resilience. As you all know, the Pacific is a very diverse region, both culturally and linguistically, but also ethnically as well. And so, of course, women come from all walks of life across the Pacific and have very different views of what security means to them, not only as individual, powerful women within their own families, but also what it means to them in a village and in a community as well. And so with those perspectives, I think women have the opportunity to be able to voice their views at a more, not only a national level, but also at a, at a more village level, as well as a province or a district level in the context of PNG. To be able to have a say about the safety of women, as we know, there’s high rates of violence, high rates of abuse not only physically and sexually, but also the emotional and psychological issues of poor mental health. And that was increasing and through anecdotal evidence, we know that mental health issues had increased during COVID. And so, looking at that, there are all those aspects of what security means and the safety of all Pacific women within the village. And I know that and I feel that women can bring a lot to the table in terms of discussions about, ensuring that we incorporate that aspect of security in itself.

Akka Rimon [00:07:18] Thank you very much. I really like how you set the tone, opening the discussion on this. Right. Looking at security, not in traditional sense, but in the Pacific lens, through the Pacific lens, rather, and understanding it from all the diversity that you mentioned and then slowly pulling in back women, which is, the focus of today’s discussion. I would want to invite you, Theresa, to also contribute to that.

Dr Theresa Meki [00:07:45]  Thank you. So for the aspect or the angle that I’m coming from with women in politics, we in the Pacific fare very poorly compared to the rest of the world. It’s not that we don’t have agency, a lot of women in the Pacific. I feel that since, missionisation and colonization, that traditional agency that women had to, be influential in the decision-making that affected their family or their clan or their tribe through their husbands or their uncles or their spouses, whatever network they had got lost along the process. And the last couple of decades has been for women to fight, to get back into that space. So women have always been there, the 50% of the community, all the decisions about safety and food and security and well-being of the people come through them. They filter what their family eats. They decide where to plant things. They have agency and decision-making about, feasts and celebrations and all these aspects of a livelihood and a society that’s thriving. But I feel that they’ve kind of been demarcated to a certain space. So women still have agency and have a voice, probably in the local setting or in the village or in the home or in these confines. But it does not mean they don’t have anything to say or can’t contribute because they’re always there. It just seems that they’re more in the background. And the whole journey of trying to get women in parliament is to bring their experience and their lived experiences and all of that, what they have to the fore so that they can influence policy and have their say at the table. That’s a struggle at the national level we still go through. But that does not mean that at the local level in the village where a lot of our communities still live, women still have a lot of impacts and say in the spaces where they occupy.

Akka Rimon [00:09:34] Wow. Brilliant. Yes. So thank you for sharing that perspective from your research lens.

Akka Rimon [00:10:18] And just building on that question and discussion we just had, how do you see the role of women in the context of climate adaptation?

Dr Theresa Meki [00:10:27] Well, I’ll just continue since I was talking previously. So when it comes to women and how before getting into climate adaptation, how climate change affects them. So the women, and I speak as a Highlander or someone from Papua New Guinea, when I go to the market, the majority of the people are women. They’re the ones selling their produce. That means that they’re the ones in that gardens as well. And I know their husbands and male partners also play a big role in doing that. But it’s not what you see when you go to the market. You see the women at the forefront of, this very important cash economy and livelihood. Now, when something like a drought happens or when there’s rain continuously, when seasons are out of sync, as we’ve been experiencing, that means, corn might not be growing at the time it should be or certain vegetables and fruit. And it’s the women who have to navigate that. So what’s the backup crop? And I’m just thinking, really, right down to the village level, what kind of food do I get to feed my family? What can I find that’s nutritious enough to get us to the next stage, whether that crop will come to harvest? , so these types of decisions they’re making all the time. So we just have to listen and get out there and listen to how they’re navigating in their livelihoods, day-to-day decisions that they’re making. Because, we talk about big things and fields, but a lot of people in the Pacific still live in this. , they’re still farmers. That’s how they survive. And I think that they’re navigating all the time. We just have to pay attention and document their stories and put it out there because it can impact people that are making decisions to look and, take into account.

Akka Rimon [00:12:07] Thank you. Thank you for that. Yep. And so there are a lot of best practices that women can teach us, right? Sometimes we’re reflected in a negative light, right? The Pacific that’s suffering all the time, and victims all the time. And then you’re telling us now women have been there for hundreds of years, adapting to these changes all the time and being resilient.

Dr Theresa Meki [00:12:29] Yeah, just to give a little anecdote. So my mum, she’s a Kafe lady. She comes from the Eastern Highlands and she was telling me how in times of drought with the banana plant, they actually eat the root of it. They peel it off and there’s a way of cooking it because that’s the thing that will last longer. So the banana itself might not be growing, but it’s right at the bottom where it’s edible. And like, that’s not common knowledge, that’s not sold in stores.

Akka Rimon [00:12:56] And I’m hoping that we are documenting this information because they’re absolutely critical for the future generation. Yeah, I just hope that they get more reflected in some of the policies, some of their preparation methods. Dr Gemma, did you want to add to that on climate change?

Dr Gemma Malungahu [00:13:13] I think that’s an important aspect that both of you have touched on, looking back and learning from our traditional ways of knowing and being and doing and using that to help navigate the present, but also moving forward into the future when it comes to adapting to issues of climate change. That was a beautiful quote that you had shared with us from your mother, about how they used to use, those traditional ways of knowing about the plant to help us with surviving today. And, it reminds me of, like, the important notion of Mana where, like going back to, all important historical but very rich cultural knowledge systems about, the sacred, our sacred ways of living and also the power that comes of that. And I know that a lot of literature that talks about climate adaptation talks about the scientific and more technological aspects of how we could adapt to climate change. But actually we’re really missing the essence of who we are as a peoples. Our cultural identity, which is usually always lost from generation to generation. But like you mentioned, it’s about, reminding ourselves of who we are and using that to help us navigate, and of course, help us influence how we can adapt to climate change. So I think that’s the power of where we are as Pacific women. We can really contribute to these discussions not only at the academic level but also on the ground as well.

Akka Rimon [00:14:56] Thank you so much. Yep. I’m really liking the way that we’re going with the conversation. Ladies, thank you so much. And I want to go on to the third question, which is on the powerful theme of International Women’s Day, which is embracing equity. And how do you see this applied in terms of, and I’ll pull away from the national security discussion. How do you see embracing equity in the context of academia? And why do you think it’s important for us to increase our Pacific women numbers in academia? Also, in thinking about your responses, consider the women and girls that are watching today. And why would you encourage them to join the space where you’re in the same leadership roles that you’re in?

Dr Gemma Malungahu [00:15:47] It’s a big question.

Dr Theresa Meki [00:15:48] Big question. I don’t regard myself as a leader. But for women to be in academia, I think it’s very important for Pacific Island girls to get their voices out there. And, speaking and sharing is one thing, but writing is also very important in publishing. And when we get to the stage of, there’s. Who gets the privilege of getting their work, becomes policy is another conversation. But for right now, it’s important for us to document our narratives, all lived, and experience all of that so that it’s there for the next person coming up to pull from these resources. But yeah, I think that’s important. In the Pacific for so long, we’ve had our history documented by colonizers and outsiders, And we need to write our own stories. That’s really important. Yeah, that’s, that’s what I do, I try to do that as well. I’m not as writing as much as I should be, but that’s the challenge that I set for myself that I need to document because my unique lived experience and what I bring to the table, they matter and they’re important, and they can influence some policy down the line. I don’t know just yet, but it’s important for me to write.

Dr Gemma Malungahu [00:17:31] Yeah, I completely agree with what you said, Theresa. And to add to that, when I think about equity, I think about the importance of levelling the playing field between the Pacific and the Pacific. And, and so like I know, in the diaspora, we see that there are, higher rates of non-Pacific women and girls who have the qualification and have access to education, tertiary university and so forth, and have the means to be able to access that. Of course, we know that for the Pacific it is at a lower rate, not only in the Pacific, in the diaspora, but also for our young women and girls in the Pacific region. There’s there’s less of an opportunity to be able to access, things like scholarships or the resources or the means to be able to access education in order to get into the academic space. So for me, when I’m thinking about, that embracing equity aspect, it’s about, making sure that there’s an increased opportunity, increase resources available so that all young Pacific women or young Pacific girls actually can have that option, have that as an option, of course, to have an option in their mind. But when it comes to the actual logistics, the actual resources, the actual funding, I feel that we can do better to make that an actual viable option for them to take once we’re an academic academia as well. The retention rates for our Pacific in general is much lower than non-Pacific. So making sure that, when we have an increase of Pacific scholars or academics within the institution of course we know that there’s greater support to help our Pacific girls, help Pacific women, provide that empowerment that support that they can if I can do it, you can do it, too. And so, like, it’s a sharing the success, but also taking people with you, As for Theresa and me, being doctors at the Department of Pacific Affairs, we see our success not as individuals, but we see it as a success of our family, our village, but also like bringing with us people that we can also elevate and take along in the journey. And that, that’s important. I know that there has been anecdotal evidence through our own connections where it’s sad to see that some women put down other women, particularly in the Pacific. And what we want to do and what we want to see is that we help support each other and empower each other to climb not only the academic ladder, but also every other ladder, socio-economics, finances and so forth. And so it’s about celebrating each other, supporting each other, being successful and nurturing each other, to flourish. Because if we’re not going to help support each other, then who is, and so I’m not saying this to put people down, but it’s I think it’s an important message that we ought to share with the future generation.

Dr Theresa Meki [00:21:09] Can I just add to your thinking that you just reminded me of, I don’t want to use that term. People use it a lot, but, mentorship. So what I do is make a concerted effort to be because I have friends who are in their seventies, women in their sixties, fifties, forties, and then I have a friend who’s like 16, 15, 20, so like have vertical friendships rather than just being with your peers. And in that way, you’re indirectly mentoring them by just listening to them, telling them about, your day, their day. You learn so much by engaging with younger people and with older people. So if there’s one encouragement that I’d like to leave out there, intentionally seek out a younger person and an older person and befriend them, just be a part of their lives. And that’s, you can learn a lot, and you can give a lot because you have a lot to give. And that happens through genuine friendships. Sometimes we put them in mentorship, and it becomes this thing where you have to be thinking about their careers and how to guide them in that way. But people learn on their own, and sometimes they just need someone to bounce ideas off with. And I think it’s important to have those vertical friendships. I’ve mentioned that in other spaces, but because we’re on record, I thought I’d say that.

Akka Rimon [00:22:21] It’s extremely important, and I really value the discussion. Ladies, I guess for me, the big takeaway from what you just gave me is accessing, providing access for Pacific women empowerment. These are really very powerful themes, right? We want to empower them to also grow like everyone else. But I want also to acknowledge the trailblazing women of the Pacific who entered the field and provided the way for us. And look at you. You’ve also joined that. Aside from stories of women breaking ceilings and breaking barriers, what are the leading issues of concern for Pacific women and girls that we need to focus more work on?

Dr Theresa Meki [00:23:31] I think a big issue that’s happening that more attention needs to be placed on is violence against women and just the threat to their safety. There’s such a stark difference to say, walking around in Port Moresby or somewhere and then walking around in Canberra. That really brings to light the issue of safety, like when you’re here, you don’t have that consciousness or awareness that, I need to hold my bag closely or that someone’s kept calling me or, you don’t feel fearful. And it’s such a great, liberating feeling to walk from the bus stop at 10 p.m., which you can never do back home in your country. Right. So it would be lovely and great if we could create that type of environment. And that’s not just a women’s thing. That’s a whole nation-society thing. We need to build safe places for our girl children, our young boys to walk around freely from school and back and forth and not feel like someone’s going to roll up and pick them up or they’re going to get bullied or just I really worry about the safety of how it is that how stark it is between our society and the West. And there’s a lot that needs to be done in that space. And it’s across all sectors, but that’s something that I worry about. I recently became an aunt, so I’m always thinking about the safety of my niece and nephew. I’m like, Oh, what’s it like? And are they going to go to school, or do we need to pick them up or, does just that whole thing plays in your mind when you experience different stages of life? These things can become more pronounced in your space of thinking. And that’s one thing that I’ve realized more now than before.

Akka Rimon [00:25:12] Thank you for that. Dr Theresa. I echo that sentiment. I also would want a world that’s safe for our children to roam around without having to feel threatened, about their security. You’re so right in bringing that up. Dr Gemma?

Dr Gemma Malungahu [00:25:30] I guess one aspect of safety that I would like to add to the discussion is, and might not necessarily be the leading issue, but it is an important issue nonetheless, is the importance of cultural safety. And it was a, I guess a concept that was coined by Irihapeti Ramsden from New Zealand, and it concerns the importance of both Pacific but also non-Pacific peoples being able to have that critical consciousness and being able to understand their own implicit biases and then how that actually influences the interaction with other people. So this might not necessarily be a key issue for women, Pacific women or Pacific girls per se, but it is an issue across the board, across the board for all the Pacific. And I know that, of course, I have my own implicit biases, too, as a Pacific woman. But like, whether or not that leads to true mental interaction with others, I know that. And here within the academic space, just taking it back, a lot of the time when I was going into university, when I was taking classes, if the lecturer was non-Pacific and would provide examples that were non-Pacific and Eurocentric and very aligned with that of the Western paradigm and ideal, I felt less than, my self-worth was lowered because I couldn’t relate to that particular lecture or that class. And so I would be less likely to want to study for that because I couldn’t relate to that. And so that is an example of poor aspects of cultural safety that have been practised, you’re teaching in a university where there is a number of Pacific students and so, therefore, being able to apply that in the class itself is important. And so making people feel safe in their own identity and their own culture so that they could thrive and also flourish and survive, and that academic space or whatever space it is that we might find our young Pacific women and girls, or even just of boys and men. And it’s not any secluded to the academic space, it’s across the board. Whatever field. Even in the workspace, too, Right? And so making sure that there’s equity. Or like the way that your supervisor or your boss treats, different people within that job. So it’s important, like sorry to take it to the student aspect, but I feel like it’s an important one that is always or sometimes overlooked, particularly, maybe in academia and so forth. And so that’s just adding to that previous question that we talked about in terms of, the academic space and empowering and ensuring that there is access. So yeah, this physical access into the institution, but it’s also that continual access in terms of being seen and being able to have that opportunity to have your voice listened to or heard from people of colour, particularly the at the institutional level, the higher up level. Making sure that there is  space for us.

Akka Rimon [00:29:43] Thank you very much Ladies, and I really like that we ended on that cultural note. We started off with concerns about the risk of safety that women face, domestic violence, and the list goes on. And then we come back to the role that cultural identity and cultural security plays. And I think that’s very powerful because in our Pacific communities, we have our own traditional practices that I want to I just want to comment on one from Kiribati, curfews where we by 6:00PM in every village, a village gets together for devotion and nobody goes around the village. Right. And this is something that I feel is now being threatened as we become an increasingly globalized community. And I feel that with the introduction of TV mobiles and a lot of, technologies, these cultural aspects are slowly fading from here. So it’s good that we sort of end and wrap up the discussion around that. We need to include more women in academia, get our voices out there, as you say Theresa, very powerfully, it’s about writing our own stories and motivating and empowering our own people, and especially young women and girls. That wraps up our conversation today. We have come to the end of our podcast, but what an enthusiastic conversation that was. I really enjoyed it, and I hope you did too. I want to close by saying thank you to our guests. You have been very generous in sharing your time, but also your wisdom with us. And on behalf of the Pacific Wayfinder, I want to wish you well in your endeavours, in your work, and in all that you do for our Pacific region. Thank you.

“Women have always been there. We are 50% of the community. All the decisions about safety, food, security and the well-being of Pacific people come through us.”

Hear from Dr Gemma Malungahu & Dr Theresa Meki about the important role Pacific women have always played in security, including the deep cultural and traditional knowledge they bring to decision-making.

Hosted by Akka Rimon, this discussion for Women’s History Month also touches on the need for greater representation of Pacific women in institutions, current challenges facing Pacific women, including gender-based violence, and the power women have to mentor each other and write their own stories.

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