Late last month the Celebrate Women program was held on the historical island of Bau for two consecutive days. American Peace-Corp Ms. Amanda Woolsey organised the event with the aim of empowering women through knowledge and information sessions focused on a range of areas from business and education to nutrition and art.

Amanda, who holds a Bachelors in Sociology and Gender & Women’s Studies has been living on the island of Bau since November 2016 and teaches part time at the local primary school where English, physical education, art, and tutoring are amongst her daily activities.

The first morning of the event was facilitated in Fijian by Mrs. Ana Petueli from Empower Pacific who spoke on the values of family and parenthood. The ladies participated with stories of their own, openly sharing the experiences of raising families, educating children, and the duties which they attend to inside the village. Fiji, as a traditionally patriarchal society, often designates specific roles to women that conform with cultural and societal expectations. It was therefore encouraging to hear the women share boldly of the ways in which they influence and nurture their families and the wider village community.

Values that the women shared were na vuli (education), na veilomani (loving one another), na cakacakavata (working together), na bula vakaveiwekani (relationships between families), na veivakabauti (trusting one another), and nai tovo vata kei na vakarau (cultural protocols, manners, and behaviour).

The day continued where a healthy lunch was served before Zumba dance moves had everyone breaking out into a sweat! Afterwards, the program focused on nutrition and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) with the ladies having an interactive discussion on heart disease, cancer, lung disease, and diabetes. NCDs are hugely problematic in Fiji and cause about 80% of deaths nation-wide, so it was vital that the women were informed of preventative measures that would benefit their lives and the livelihood of their families.

This was followed by an afternoon art class which was facilitated by Peace-Corp/Artist – Mr. David Denton who had previously painted vivid murals with the help of school kids and Ms. Woolsey at Bau District School on the island. David took the ladies on a step-by-step lesson with acrylic paints to create amazing sunsets with coconut trees. This served as a stress-relieving tool and avenue to channel our inner “artists.”

The second day of the program was also eventful with the continuation of Mrs. Petueli’s session as well as a workshop on SMART goals which is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. The workshop was set to help upskill the women for future business initiatives on the island as well as to organise their strategies towards achieving their goals.

The highlight of the day however, belonged to a lady by the name of Mrs. Seruwaia Wati. An active member of the Bauan community, Seruwaia was the quiet yet diligent support behind the two-day event (she is first on the left of kneeling women in the group photo above). I sat with Seruwaia in the back-kitchen floor of the village hall named Ulunivuaka as she shared parts of her story in an interview.

A mother, grandmother, and island-nurse, Seruwaia quietly spoke of her love and care for the island of Bau and especially for the future of its young people. Seruwaia takes part in the village choir, mentors and supports local youth, is an active member of the Mother’s Club, and organises fundraisers which help with school and extra-curricular events. Recently, she has been part of a group of women who are working towards building a medical dispensary on the island and has been one of the leading forces behind a network with South Pacific Business Development (SPBD). This organisation commits itself towards empowering women in rural villages by starting and sustaining small income-generating schemes, an opportunity which will be taken by some of the women of Bau later this year.

What I love about Seruwaia and women like her, is that they defy the limitations which can be bestowed upon them in traditional settings such as a Fijian village. Women as such are go-getters who work wisely within their rural location to achieve great things for their communities as well as bring about positive changes which empower and uplift the future of their people. That afternoon as I sat across from Seruwaia, it hit me that oftentimes it is unsung heroines like Seruwaia who uphold a community in their own quiet and industrious ways. I saw before me that day a woman of great humility, faith, and conviction, who was not afraid to move with the times.

All in all, the two-day event was full of learning, laughter, and the sharing of wisdom. It was clear that the women who attended were prepared to challenge and open themselves up to a variety of tools which would benefit them both personally and communally. Women in villages like that of Bau are skilful, versatile, and wise. However, all too often they can be viewed by outsiders as having very little agency. This could not be further from the truth; these women carry a world of knowledge and experiences which can be used towards their own self-sufficient development.

It should therefore be a prerogative for people and organisations who want to assist them, to first sit and listen to their hopes, their dreams, and the ways which they can help shape their own futures.

NCD Heath Statistics source: www.health.gov.fj


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