Traditionally, South Pacific women were confined to the home, while the men would handle most matters outside the immediate family. In Melanesia the woman was responsible for working the land and doing most of the housework, thereby increasing the status of the man as head of the family. Life was similar for Polynesian women, though they had greater influence.
Western education has caused many Pacific women to question their subordinate position and the changing lifestyle has made the old relationship between the sexes outmoded. As paid employment expands and—thanks to family planning—women are able to hold their jobs, they demand equal treatment from society. Polynesian women are more emancipated than their sisters in Melanesia, though men continue to dominate public life throughout the South Pacific. Tradition is often manipulated to deny women the right to express themselves publicly on community matters.
Cultural barriers hinder women’s access to education and employment, and the proportion of girls in school falls rapidly as the grade level increases. Female students are nudged into lower-paying fields such as nursing or secretarial services. In Fiji and elsewhere, export-oriented garment factories exploit women workers with low wages and poor conditions. Levels of domestic violence vary greatly. In Fiji, for example, it’s far less accepted among indigenous Fijians than it is among Indo-Fijians, and in Fiji’s Macuata Province women have a suicide rate seven times above the world average, with most of the victims being Indo-Fijians. Those little signs on buses reading “real men don’t hit women” suggest the problem. Travelers should take an interest in women’s issues.