Changing mindsets - women’s leadership in resource management in the Solomon Islands
"Men and women see things differently. We women are seeing that logging is impacting on our fishing areas from sediment run-off and we are now finding it difficult to get clean drinking water. [But] Men are making decisions about logging without understanding how logging affects our marine resources and livelihoods for our children’s futures…but it’s hard for me to speak at the meetings.” Constance Sori, Leona Community Women’s Representative, Western Province, Solomon Islands.
Constance Sori is from Leona Community on Vella la Vella, one of many islands in Solomon Islands’ Western Province. She is one of the most trusted women in her community when it comes to managing the communal savings system. She speaks with confidence at a symposium that has brought together over 40 women from coastal communities in the province. She also comes from a society where land ownership has traditionally has been through matrilineal inheritance. It may therefore be a surprise to hear her express discomfort in participating in decision-making that will affect her land and her family’s livelihood.
Constance is not alone, however. Her sentiments were echoed by many of the 40 women attending a symposium in June 2021 in Gizo to discuss women’s leadership in coastal fisheries management in the country’s largest province. Despite their obvious drive and determination to protect their resources, many women are unable or uncomfortable to step into the largely male-dominated tribal and land-related discussions.
“We have been working on sustainable fisheries in our coastal communities for many years,” says Minnie Rafe Ifuto’o, who is the Community-based Fisheries Management Program Coordinator at WWF-Solomon Islands.. “We’ve found that women in the communities tend to have an inherent understanding of the need to maintain the health of the coastal and inshore marine environment − they rely on it for survival”.
Fish and other marine resources provided by mangrove, sea grass and coral reef ecosystems are sometimes the only source of protein for growing children. Fish and marine products such as shell-money also provide for household income. Women also have a critical role in pre-fishing activities such as mending of fishing nets and preparing food for fishermen, and post-fishing activities such as selling and cooking of fish dishes.
“Women in most of the communities have become actively involved in programmes aimed at improving the state of their coastal fisheries,” says Minnie. “Yet, women still have little or no role in the governance and management of fisheries and little control over land-based activities that impact their precious fishing grounds.”
“Decision-making by women is mostly limited to their own spheres such as the savings clubs,” she explains. “They tend to hesitate to take on key roles for decision-making on resources, leaving it to men to make decisions that will have an impact on the family and community.”
Minnie adds that empowering women to participate in decision-making in a largely male-dominated culture is no simple task. Steadfast adherence to cultural and social norms means that women in rural communities tend to be reserved even where they are given opportunity to speak. This has resulted in agreements to use land for logging and other extraction and development, at the cost of a community’s long-term well-being.
As Rindah Melsen, a community facilitator from the Nusatuva Community, explains: “Even when we do speak out, men sometimes ignore our views − they assume that their ideas are the best. However, without the input of women, they do not necessarily make decisions that are good for the future, but they still make decisions.”
Over the past two decades, the sustainability of coastal fisheries in the Solomon Islands has continued to deteriorate, with communities facing depleting stocks of fish and other marine resources. Growing populations, overharvesting and destructive fishing methods, land- and ship-based pollution, and sedimentation caused by logging, mangrove removal and land development, are some of the identified causes of the disappearing marine resources.
WWF is supporting wholistic approaches that bring together social and economic needs of communities as part of marine conservation and sustainable fisheries efforts. WWF’s Sustainable Coastal Communities programme has empowered women and men in rural Solomon Islands communities to become community facilitators in sustainable fisheries, to establish alternative income sources and a highly successful communal savings programme (called savings clubs). These efforts would be further strengthened if the entire community were to work together and all perspectives are heard in the decision-making process.
“Challenging the norms and long-venerated cultural systems will take time and will need to come from within the communities themselves,” says Minnie. “The leadership symposium provided a space for women to talk about their challenges and to understand their rights with respect to land and resource use.”
One issue raised was the criticism women receive from family members and others for their work as leaders. Their leadership commitments are considered by some to be competing with their other “gender-based” community and family roles.
Varina Leke, a community women’s leader (President for Ward 5 in the Council of Women) and is also a member of the Rannonga Council of Chiefs from the Pienuna Community in Ranonnga, applauds those who she sees as being “brave enough” to persevere in spite of the criticism they face. She believes that women provide a fairer perspective and see the needs of everyone.
“Women leaders always want to ensure that there is a fair share equally among all community members. They see themselves as role models and strive to ensure that there is a share for everyone.”
“We also need to understand our legal and custom rights, particularly in terms of land ownership so that we participate fully,” says Varina. “Common issues can also be addressed collectively across communities and this is where the ward councils can help bring people together.”
The COVID-19 situation, while tragic, may have helped “elevate” respect for the women in many of the communities. Funds from the mostly women-led cooperative savings club programme enabled families to continue to pay for basic expenses.
Erica Bana, who is the coordinator of the Simbo Megapod Women’s Savings Club says “It is important that women establish saving clubs and organise themselves in such associations. This is an opportunity for women to work together and build on their important roles in their family, church and the community. The savings clubs help to enhance these roles and we should also celebrate our efforts.”
Assaneth Buarafi, Principal Fisheries Officer says: “When women come together, there is comfort and empowerment to express views and ideas. We all come to these types of gatherings with different levels of understanding and confidence and we need to support each other to ensure that everyone has the confidence to speak and learn together.”
While change will invariably come from within their own communities, the women at the symposium acknowledged that collectively they have the power to change the direction for resource management in the province. Support from men and women in government agencies, provincial councils, non-governmental groups in the form of capacity building and access to information on land and inclusivity laws and policies will be integral to these efforts.
"WWF's Sustainable Coastal Communities program is supported by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP), Simplot Australia through its seafood brand, John West, and generours WWF supporters worldwide."