Women’s Education in the Solomon Islands
By Shalom Akao, high school teacher in the Solomon Islands and recent recipient of a Masters of Educational Leadership at the University of Waikato, New Zealand
In the Solomon Islands, women’s educational opportunities are defined by cultural and historical context. A small Melanesian country in the Southwest Pacific situated about nineteen hundred kilometers northeast of Australia, the Solomon Islands is an archipelago comprised of a double chain of six large and many smaller islands with a total area of 28,369 square kilometers. The capital, Honiara, is on the island of Guadalcanal, the site of the famous World War II battle. The islands are mountainous and sparsely populated, and most of the population lives in isolated rural areas and survives by subsistence farming. Few paid employment opportunities exist, and most of these are located in towns and occupied by men. In this social context, traditional practices and norms continue to affect women’s educational opportunities. In recent years, however, the government has taken small steps that signify a growing commitment to women’s equity.
History of Education in the Solomon Islands
During the precolonial era, each generation passed its knowledge and skills to the next through oral transmission and practical training. This system of informal education reinforced gender-stereotypical roles. Girls typically learned from their mothers to cook, wash clothing, care for young children, clean, and garden. Meanwhile, fathers taught their sons to fish, build houses, and act as head of the household.
With the arrival of European missionaries in the 1800s, education in the Solomon Islands became more formal. The missionaries created gender-segregated schools with the primary aim of converting people to Christianity. These schools offered education in grades one through four to all students, who then had to pass an exam before continuing to grades five through seven. In keeping with traditional cultural norms, the missionaries prioritized boys’ education and established more schools for boys than for girls. Like the informal educational system, the mission schools reinforced gender stereotypes, emphasizing domestic skills for girls while boys learned skills that prepared them for work outside the home. After completing primary school, students entered a gender-segregated higher education system, where girls often trained to become nurses while boys trained to become teachers.
In the 1890s, Great Britain colonized the Solomon Islands. The colonial government established government schools as an alternative to the existing mission schools, which continued to operate. The new government schools were often coeducational, but like the mission schools, they prioritized boys’ education in keeping with traditional family structures. Because a woman typically left home and moved in with her husband’s family upon marriage, many parents, struggling to pay school fees, saw girls’ education as a poor investment.
After the Solomon Islands gained independence in 1978, the church handed control of some primary schools to the government. The church still owns and administers some schools, which receive some funding from the government. The curriculum continues to reinforce gender stereotypes, although some changes have occurred. Girls can now study subjects previously reserved for boys (like woodwork), and boys can study subjects typically assigned to girls (like home economics). But few students pursue these options, at least at the secondary level.
Female Participation in Education Today
Statistical data provide a partial indication of how women and girls are faring in respect to educational attainment. At present, women have relatively low literacy rates: sixty-seven percent of adult women (compared to 84 percent of adult men) are literate (UNICEF 2005). This limited literacy prevents many women from participating in formal decision-making processes at all levels of society. Education is surely the antidote to low literacy rates, but women’s participation in education leaves much to be desired. Female participation in education is high at the primary level (79 percent), but drops off at the senior secondary school level (where it is 24 percent) (UNICEF 2005).
Multiple barriers to secondary education can account for this decline. As in earlier eras, when parents find that they cannot afford to pay school fees for all their children, they typically opt to invest in boys’ education, forcing their daughters to leave school. Moreover, because the culture dictates that “a woman’s place is in the home,” girls receive little encouragement to pursue education. Limits in capacity create another barrier. Although girls pass their entrance exams at rates equal to boys, the culture views their education as less valuable and they are less likely to fill available slots. In addition, most students must leave home and attend boarding school to study at the secondary level, but secondary boarding schools have more beds for boys than for girls. These factors combined make girls less likely than boys to enroll in secondary education. Although the number of girls accessing secondary education has increased to 43.4 percent in recent years (Ministry of Education 2006), improvements have occurred predominantly in urban centers, where girls can live at home while attending school.
Even for girls who complete their secondary educations, rates of participation in tertiary education were as low as 5 percent in the 1990s (Solomon Islands Government 1998). (Unfortunately, more recent data is not available.) As is the case with secondary school enrollment, cultural considerations lead women’s families to discourage them from pursuing tertiary education. In addition, all girls hoping to participate in tertiary education must win competitive scholarships from their government or the governments of such countries as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Taiwan. Girls are less likely than boys to apply for and win these scholarships. The establishment of The University of the South Pacific campus in Honiara has provided more opportunities for women to pursue further studies. But these women must be able to pay their own fees.
Changing the Educational Possibilities for Women
Women’s low levels of educational participation create a double bind for women in the Solomon Islands. Because women’s access to education is limited, their leadership opportunities—and chances to improve opportunities for other women—are also constrained. Even in educational leadership, women’s rates of participation are low. A 2006 survey showed that of the total of 103 secondary school principals in the country, only three were female (2.9 percent) (Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development 2005). In addition, the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development (MEHRD) employs more men than women, and women hold very few senior positions at MEHRD (Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development 2004). Parliament, the country’s highest decision-making arena, currently has no female members. These low levels of representation have contributed to women’s issues not being heard and addressed.
At the same time, the Solomon Islands’ government has indicated its commitment to gender equity by ratifying two influential international conventions: the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). These conventions legally bind the government to take steps to ensure gender equity. In addition, in October 1998, Parliament finally passed the National Women’s Policy after five frustrating years of rejection and procrastination. Recognizing that the Solomon Islands are undergoing rapid sociocultural, economic, and political changes that are impacting women’s roles, the policy outlines the government’s vision for both rural and urban women. Relying on partnerships between women, government, churches, NGOs, and other development partners, the policy provides guidelines for relevant programs and projects to ensure that resources are efficiently focused and coordinated to fully benefit women (Solomon Islands Government 1998). While the policy establishes clear guidelines for addressing gender inequality, commitment and support for its effective implementation are still needed. Finally, the government established the Ministry of Women, Youth, and Children’s Affairs in January 2007. While previous governments had created small departments for women, youth, and children within larger ministries, the current government recognized that women’s issues required more attention. After ratifying CEDAW in 2002, it was obligated to establish this separate ministry dedicated to women, youth, and children’s affairs.
These recent actions indicate that the government is now more serious about advancing the status of girls and women through such measures as improving access to education. However, for government policies and initiatives to be effective, a shift in cultural attitudes--particularly at the community level--must also occur. Unless the society begins to value the education of girls and women, progress in women’s education and leadership will remain slow.
Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development. 2004. Annual report 2004. Honiara: Solomon Islands Government, Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development.
———. 2005. Digest of statistics 2005. Honiara: Solomon Islands Government Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development.
———. 2006. SIEMIS analysis workbook: Primary and secondary school enrolments by gender. Honiara, Solomon Islands: Solomon Islands Government Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development.
Solomon Islands Government. 1998. National women’s policy. Honiara, Solomon Islands.
UNICEF. 2005. Country statistics. Retrieved May 18, 2007, from www.unicef.org/infobycountry/; www.unicef.org/infobycountry/vanuatu.html; and www.unicef.org/infobycountry/solomonislands_statistics.html