This was meant to be just a photo and video blog, but it’s really turn into me rambling about anything remotely related to each photo that I’ve posted. But it does all relate to my experience as an Australian volunteer for a microfinance organisation in Vanuatu!

Working at VANWODS has been an amazing experience. It’s difficult to describe the gender situation in Vanuatu. The discrimination doesn’t feel overt, it feels like it’s just accepted (even by women) that women are “less than” men. Or maybe a better way of explaining it is that men and women have kastom roles, and women are customarily assigned roles that we in the west ascribe to as being subservient to men. I don’t know. I feel like I need an anthropology degree.

But that’s not to say that there’s no overt signs of sexism. For example, bride price is still paid and I’ve heard of men justifying domestic abuse because he “bought” his wife and now she won’t do what he tells her. Domestic and sexual violence is a big problem here, even ni-Vanuatu women are told to go about in groups if they want to go out after dark. And there’s also a lack of women in leadership roles, there’s only ever been 4 women MPs in the 29 years since Independence. In such an environment, I’m not sure that advocacy work for gender equality would really make a difference. Whereas I think something like microfinance, which is a little bit subversive by putting money into the hands of women, can really make a difference.

So as it happens, VANWODS has become the largest community organization in Vanuatu, and I think the strongest voice for gender equality. VANWODS currently has more than 4500 members, in offices on three islands of Vanuatu. We’re financially self-sustainable, and seek donor funding only to assist with the establishment of new projects. Providing business development services is part of our mission statement, and we’ve recently introduced training on financial literacy (and I’m here as a business development services advisor, so I’m exploring other methods, including training on entrepreneurship and building businesses through social enterprise.) VANWODS is based on the Grameen centre system – I know there’s a ton of criticism about it, but it just seems to work. Vanuatu society has always been built around community pressure – for example, bride price is paid by the whole village, so the entire village has a vested interest in the state of your marriage, and domestic disputes are often taken to a community hearing – and it seems to lend itself naturally to microfinance practices. An impact assessment of VANWODS, commissioned by AusAID, can be found here.

Anyway, I set up this blog to share my experiences as a volunteer working on the ground in microfinance (I twitter my random thoughts and difficulties too) and I’m interested to hear from people who have gone through the same thing and can share advice. Happy to be contacted (or tweeted once I figure that damn thing out.)