Sarah* and I became close back in 2011 after she’d snuck away from home to join our family for a month on the island of Marakei. Sarah was feisty, independent and strong willed. At 18 years old all she wanted to do was to go out and have fun. She flirted with boys everywhere she went and unlike the usual ‘shy’ Kiribati girl, she would whistle at men, flashing her bright smile and flipping her long black, island girl hair.
As we got closer she kept asking me how I had gotten to the age of 25 and did not have any children or wasn’t married. She was even more surprised when I told her that both decisions were simply because ‘I didn’t want to yet’. She then spoke about how she felt like the odd one out because she didn’t want children for a few years and didn’t want to get married. In her cheeky way she said ‘I like too many boys, I don’t want to choose to marry one right now’. In Australia this thinking is pretty standard for an 18 year old girl. In Kiribati, a laughable and unthinkable dream.
I told her that she needed to get a job and fairly soon. Generally speaking, women that work in Kiribati aren’t expected to have children as early as women that are unemployed. Due to the lack of jobs on the island, anyone who earns money in the family is a welcomed breadwinner and are therefore encouraged to stay in the workforce to support the whole family. For any woman who is past school age and doesn’t work, they are expected to not only help run the household but are assumed to have children soon. Unlike western societies, there is no option to travel, ‘find yourself’ or ‘follow your dream’. Birth control is still a fairly new thing on Kiribati and whilst awareness for it is slowly rising, if you don’t have a have a job in Kiribati, boredom weighs heavily. Therefore, having a baby as soon as you finish high school (17 years old) is considered the normal progression into adulthood.
After returning from Marakei, Sarah came to visit us at our house in the village of Teaorereke – approximately a 40 minute bus trip from her village of Buota. She helped us cook, salt fish and grate coconut all the while singing and making us laugh all day. The time passed quickly and it was only when the sky turned a deep purple did she realise the time and suddenly packed up her things to leave. She was rushing a little which surprised me because no-one in Kiribati rushes.
As my three younger cousins and I walked her to the main road for her to catch the bus, I asked Sarah why she was rushing.
She replied ‘I need to get home because if I’m out in the dark, my brothers will hit me’
‘Why would they hit you?’
‘They will hit me because they will think I am with a man. I don’t have a reason to be out of the house this much’
She hailed the bus and flashed me a big grin just before she disappeared into the vehicle.
I walked back to the house with two cousins running ahead and a baby cousin on my hip. I was wearing a traditional Kiribati top (tiibuta) and a sarong. I was barefoot and despite my lighter skin, I could have been any other I-Kiribati woman. A baby on my hip, yelling at my younger cousins to stop fighting and going back to my house where my family waited.
It was at this moment I realised that I lived a very different life back in Australia. These children weren’t my own, I was only visiting and I certainly didn’t have two older brothers waiting to beat me if I came home too late.
Just like Sarah said, she didn’t have a job so she was expected to be pretty much be home all day. She could venture out to see family and friends but if she was out later than dark, her family would be suspicious of her. For all they know, she would be out there ‘disrespecting her family name’.
Kiribati men are particularly proud and jealous. Give them a chance to not trust their sister/daughter/wife (i.e. coming home late) then they are suspicious. And with a reported 1 in 3 women victims of domestic violence (only reported cases that is, we can assume that the number is much higher) we can only assume what happens when a fathers pride is threatened or husband is suspicious of his wife. The only excuse for a women to be away from the home so much? Have a job.
Anote Tong – the current President of Kiribati – has a duty to the women of Kiribati. The population is increasing rapidly and one of the biggest factors to slow this down is increasing job opportunities. More initiatives need be available for students wishing to study at the University of the South Pacific and Kiribati Institute of Technology. The government have also not done enough to explore options of agriculture and farming on the outer islands. Expanding the (almost non-existant) employment opportunities on outer islands will decrease the daily influx of citizens moving to the main island of Tarawa in search of work.
Tong often speaks about educating the Kiribati youth so that should the country ‘drown’ to the rising seas, they are employable enough to apply for visas to other countries; to ‘move with dignity’. This way of thinking is negative and not encouraging to its citizens; the people don’t want to move from their home. It is only attractive for western countries that are beginning to feel the pressure that Kiribati citizens may eventually be ‘climate change refugees’. The Kiribati people need to hear that their government is doing everything they can to make Kiribati a liveable place for the next few years. Yes have procedures in place for the inevitable rising of the water but in the meantime, more needs to be done for the country while it is still a country.
Tong needs to encourage women to study and contribute to the country not in family numbers but economy. Kiribati women need more options and it is the government’s responsibility to increase both awareness of birth control and to give them better education and employment opportunities. With further education and women in the workforce, the culture towards domestic violence will surely evolve.
Thankfully, the night I dropped Sarah off at the bus stop, she made it home on time.
The next time I saw her, we visited the Australian High Commission to pick up a visa application for her to visit Australia. The plan was for her to come on holiday a few months after I had returned back to Australia.
Four months after I had come back to Australia, I was told that Sarah was pregnant with her first child.
My heart sank.
Without the support of government providing options and national awareness on education, birth control and employment opportunities, Kiribati is losing generations of intelligent, vibrant and amazing women to households where they are to stay day in day out.
*Name has been changed upon request of the individual