The Solomon Islands Women, My Inspiration
written by Robyn James, community-based climate adaptation project manager of The Nature Conservancy
Robyn James with members from the Mothers Union.
I am so inspired by the women of Isabel Province in the Solomon Islands with whom I’ve had the real privilege of working. This group of women is quietly (and sometimes not so quietly!) demanding to be part of the biggest development decisions their communities have ever faced. For almost four years, I have been working with several local women’s groups to support their involvement in conservation, development activities and decision-making.
It is as a pivotal time for the communities we work with in the Solomon Islands because their remote, rural communities are currently being courted by international mining interests focused on some of the world’s largest remaining nickel deposits. When mining begins, it will change the environment and social fabric of these communities on a scale never before experienced in the Solomon Islands.
With pressure mounting to begin mining, a committed group of women in Isabel is working hard to make themselves heard and insisting they be included in decisions that will have such a huge impact on their children, grandchildren and their natural environment.
Despite being a matrilineal society, meaning women are the landowners, men often dominate most major land decisions in Isabel. I have heard firsthand from women that they do not have the same access to information and do not have equal roles and responsibilities within their tribes. Men usually hold the positions of leaders, chiefs or committee chairs – the decision makers and the ones who attend community meetings. Mining company representatives and provincial governments often only speak to male chiefs, not the female landowners. When women do attend community events, such as mining forums, they often are expected to prepare the food and as a result miss out on participating and expressing their opinions.
One of the amazing women I work closely with is Moira Dasipio, the president of the most prominent women’s group in Isabel Province, the Mothers Union. Moira emphasized to me and to the government that, “It is the women who care about the long-term sustainability of these projects and that there are benefits for our children. As such, we need to be properly informed and included.”
The Conservancy is working with Moira and the Mothers Union to develop education materials and support them to undertake awareness to all communities the province. The positive effect of women’s involvement is especially prominent in Isabel province where 15 women chiefs have recently been nominated. More women chiefs mean more decision-making authority, first-hand receipt of information, and better access to both government and industry representatives for women more broadly.
(From left) Robyn James (TNC), Winifred Pitamama (Deputy Principal, St. Joseph’s College), Moira Daspio (President, Mother’s Union) and Iris Parisuri (Area Manager, WorldVision)
Additionally, TNC supported our local partners including the Mothers Union to hold a public forum on mining in November 2013. This forum was the first of its kind in the country, as it brought together mining companies, government leaders, tribal chiefs and the Church, along with women and men from the communities – all with the aim of considering the issue of mining.
Many entered the forum with their minds set on allowing mining because they only considered the financial benefits. The paradigm shifts were palpable as community members realized both the pros and the cons of mining. The decisions reached by the community were completely their own – the Conservancy and I only gave them the compass and map to chart the course for their country’s future.
After three intense days of information and discussion, all 150 delegates unanimously reached a decision. The energy in the room was charged with self-confidence and pride when the delegates publicly stated: “We are not ready for mining.”
It has been a joy to work with community-based women’s groups to inform them of their rights and to empower them to make their voices heard. Moira said to me, “The Nature Conservancy changed the hearts and minds of women around being strong and confident about managing our environment for future generations.”
This is fabulous news because research shows that gender equality is highly important for sustainable development. Small efforts toward equality have big impacts both on women and the communities.
I am so proud to be working with The Nature Conservancy to support the education of these women and communities. My work has moved from being a job to being a passion. The urgency and importance of what is happening in the Solomon Islands keeps me up at night.
The determination of the women in the Solomon Islands to change the destiny of their country is contagious. I am fortunate to work so closely with them and call them friends.