Being the First: pioneering Solomons women

Being the First

I recently received my copy of ‘Being the First: Storis Blong Oloketa Meri Lo Solomon Aelan‘, which tells the stories of 14 trail-blazing women who reached senior positions in the Solomons Islands public service and parliament.

It’s an interesting read and a welcome reminder that, despite the considerable barriers to women’s equal participation in public life in Solomons, there is a small but growing number of women leaders who will hopefully serve as role models for those to come.

In this post, I’ve just picked out a few details from the book that I thought were interesting. I’ve also collated a few facts about Lily Ogatina Poznanski who was omitted from the book but also deserves recognition.

Turning the Tide

The book begins with a chapter titled ‘Turning the Tide: celebrating women’s history in the Solomon Islands: 1948-2009’ that was written by Ruth Basi Asi-Maetala with Alice Pollard (pp.9-33). This chapter provides a general overview of, amongst other things: women in education (including training and scholarships), institutions such as the Girl Guides and women’s clubs, women’s suffrage and participation in provincial and national elections, women in employment and the public service and Church women.

I have summarised some of the info on women’s participation in education and employment. I will discuss the issues of women’s suffrage and participation in provincial and national elections in separate post.

Education

Apparently the first girls’ school was established in 1906 in Visale, Guadalcanal by Mary Leon, a Catholic Sister. My impression is that various churches were the main education providers for both boys and girls until at least the 1950s or 1960s and Asi-Maetala and Pollard state that ‘between 1948 and 1968 the SSEM, Catholic and Melanesian missions were the agents responsible for girls’ education’ (p.13).

King George VI High School was an all-boys school until the first brave girl attended in 1959. Seven years late, in 1966, there were still just 5 girls out of 159 students at KGVI. However, it appears that a few women had better luck winning scholarships: in 1963, there were 40 scholarships available, of which women and girls received 13 (p.16). The scholarships were typically for secondary schooling or training colleges in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, PNG or England.

By the 1990s, female enrolments at primary school were consistently around 45 per cent of total enrolments.

Employment

Apparently there were no female public servants until 1963 (although it is not clear if this also refers to expatriates or just Solomon Islanders). Almost 30 years later, Phyllis Taloikwai from Isabel became the first woman to reach the most senior position in the public service when she was appointed Permanent Secretary in 1992.

By 1970 a number of pioneering women were the first to take up positions in a range of positions including medicine, ANZ bank, SIBC, customs and the Legislative Council. In that one year, Rose Piko became first woman doctor, Ruth Palubu became the first woman to work with ANZ bank, Mary Bisili was one of the first women to work as a production assistant at SIBC, Hilda Kari was the first woman Assistant Clerk to the Legislative Council and Eileen Robinson became the first female customs officer. Thereafter, women slowly worked their way into a range of other positions – one notable example being Esther Lelapitu’s appointment in 1991 as the first female local magistrate.

In 1976, four women became the first female police officers. During the 1990s and 2000s, women steadily progressed into more senior ranks in the police force: Elizabeth Daokalia became the first police sergeant in 1995, Regina Siapu became the first police inspector in 2001, Gwen Ratu became the first superintendent in 2002, and Gwen Ratu and Juanita Betanga became the first chief superintendents in 2008. The Women in Uniform Association reported that in 2008 there were 237 ‘women in uniform’ who were working in the police (141), correctional services (50), customs (22), quarantine (15), aviation (5) and immigration (4).

If I had one criticism of the book (which overall I think is a commendable achievement), it is a lack of focus on women in business or the non-government sector. Perhaps this could be the focus for a later book, if this first book proves to be popular.

Lily Ogatina Poznanski

A couple of letters (here and here) to the Solomon Star have criticised ‘Being the First’ for omitting Lily Ogatina Poznanski who was the first female elected representative in Solomon Islands.

Ogatina Poznanski was elected to the Central Solomons seat in the Legislative Council on on 7 April 1965. Her achievement is particularly remarkable because it appears that she won her seat despite the franchise being restricted to men only (p.22). Apparently she had been encouraged to run for election by Mariano Kelesi, then President of the Malaita Council and who was himself elected as member for North-East Malaita (1967-73) and later member for Lau-Mbaelelea (1976-80).

Ogatina Poznanski did not recontest the seat in 1967 but did run unsuccessfully for West Isabel in 1984. She was also one of the first women to qualify as a Grade One teacher in 1964 and she subsequently taught at St Hilda School, Bugana, Ghella. Apparently, according to a letter by Phil Bradford, Ogatina Poznanski was the also the first Hansard to the first Parliament, was involved in the drafting of the Constitution and was the first woman to be awarded an OBE and the Solomon Islands Independence medal. She passed away on 14 June 1989.

Clearly Ogatina Poznanski was a remarkable woman and true Solomons pioneer. One of the book’s co-editors, Dr Alice Aruhe’eta Pollard, acknowledged this in a reply to the criticisms and stated that:

For this reason those of us researching and preparing the book, spent a long time researching the available literature and holding consultations with several of Lily’s family members, in the hope that we would be able to include a chapter on her life. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, the information we were able to gather from these sources was not enough for a chapter.

Fortunately, this solicited a very warm and generous response from Lily Ogatina Valahoi Poznanski, the grand-daughter of the late Lily Poznanski. I think her words suffice:

To Mr. Bradford, I sincerely thank you for publicly highlighting the achievements made, and award received, by this simple, soft spoken, but yet very determined lady. It is truly a shame that the family members consulted by Dr Pollard were not able to provide the information required.

To Dr Pollard, you have done a great job in co-editing this book. I am sure it is not an easy task and I extend my gratitude to you on behalf of all these great women in our country as mentioned in your book, but most of all on behalf of my late grand mother. … as you say, hopefully this book will only be the first of many such endeavours.

Thank you, once again.

Being the First

The 14 women featured in ‘Being the First’ include seven Permanent Secretaries, four Under Secretaries, a Member of Parliament, a Public Service Commissioner and the Clerk to Parliament. Each tell interesting, revealing stories of their upbringing, the challenges they faced and the support they received from mentors, family and, often, their faith. Below is a list of the women featured in the book along with a very brief summary of their achievements.

  • Catherine Adifaka (Malaita): first female Public Service Commissioner
  • Betty Fakarii (Malaita): Under Secretary (Reconciliation and Peace), Ministry of Unity since 2007; previously Private Secretary at Government House (2002-07)
  • Elizabeth Kausimae (West Are ‘Are, Malaita): Under Secretary, Ministry of Finance since 2007
  • Emily Teaitala (Makira/Ulawa): Under Secretary (Correctional Services), Ministry of Police, National Security and Correctional Services since 2007
  • Ethel Sigimanu (Fanalel, Malaita): Permanent Secretary to numerous departments
  • Hilda Kari (Paupau, East Guadalcanal): MP (1989-2001) and Minister during the Billy Hilly and Ulufa’alu governments; she also helped establish the National Council of Women in 1982-83
  • Jane Waetara (Malu’u, North Malaita): Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Development Planning and Aid Coordination since 2005
  • Joy Kere (Malaita): Permanent Secretary to various departments (1998 and c.2003 onwards)
  • Mylyn Kuve (Roviana lagoon, Western): Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education since c.2006
  • Nairy Alamu (Western): Permanent Secretary to numerous departments between 1995 and 2008
  • Nancy Legua (Ontong Java/Sikaiana): acting Under Secretary (Human Resources), Ministry of Public Service since 2007
  • Phyllis Taloikwai (Isabel): first female Permanent Secretary (appointed in 1992)
  • Ruth Liloqula (Choiseul): Permanent Secretary to various departments since at least 2003
  • Taesi Sanga (East Malaita): Clerk to Parliament since 2001

The book’s production was something of a team effort. The interviews were conducted by Catherine Adifaka (the first female Public Service Commissioner in Solomon Islands) and the interviews were transcribed by Cynthia Wickham. The book itself was co-edited by Dr Alice Aruhe’eta Pollard and Professor Marilyn Waring.

If you want to buy a copy, it is available online through Pacific Media Centre for NZ$27 plus postage. There are a couple of interesting articles or blogs on the book in the latest edition of Islands Business magazine and a blog written by the Pacific Media Centre.

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