Men bathe upstream, women bathe downstream: gender, natural resource management and development in rural Solomon Islands

Dyer, Michelle (2016) Men bathe upstream, women bathe downstream: gender, natural resource management and development in rural Solomon Islands. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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This thesis is an ethnography of women on Kolombangara Island in the Western Province of Solomon Islands. It works towards making village women visible and their voices audible. A blend of quantitative and qualitative data is used to describe what women are doing, when, where, and how, and thus make sense of the position from, and within which, rural women act. As a feminist political work the thesis aims to reframe articulations of gender equity with development and natural resource management in the Pacific through the lens of village women's perspectives.

This research was undertaken through approximately twelve months' fieldwork in villages in various parts of Solomon Islands with seven months' continuous residence in one village in the Western Province. Data was generated using a blend of participant observation, informal and semiformal interviews, Focus Discussion Groups and collection of quantitative data related to women's livelihood strategies. The thesis combines evidence of rural women's analysis and perceptions of gender relations with critical review of the effect of such representations in international development discourse globally and in Solomon Islands.

Women's narrations of their lives are contextualised by quantitative data on their livelihood strategies. This reveals the creative dimensions of women's agency, as well as the different ways in which they perceive their capacity to act may be enabled or constrained. An analysis of quantitative data of mixed and single gender community meetings reveals how certain configurations of power relations are normalised, re-enacted and reinforced. Cultural valuations and gendered characterisations of rights to speak publicly are examined through analysis of gendered roles in community meetings. A novel method of data presentation is then used to visually illuminate the differences in men's and women's meeting styles. This data shows that public community meetings follow men's meeting styles, which are inimical to the validation of women's contributions. I argue for creating conceptual space for women's meeting and speech styles as publicly valid as a measure for enabling women's empowerment.

Women's activities and perspectives during a logging conflict in one village are explored. Women's resistance to logging on their customary land is examined in the light of social and cultural norms which demarcate the boundaries of "good" women's behaviour. I conclude that this resistance is not women's resistance, but is part of a coordinated strategy by those who oppose logging which instrumentally utilises culturally determined gender categories, flavoured by the influence of sustainable development discourse. By contrast, I present the case of one woman who contravenes gendered social expectations of women's behaviour in her fight for land rights. This comparison reveals some of the socially prescribed operating parameters of women's public oppositional behaviour.

The thesis engages in critical analysis of discourse emanating from the international development paradigm. I argue against the instrumental imperatives of the international development agenda which decontextualise representations of women and also make gender relations invisible. I contend that it is necessary to resist seduction by stirring lyrical metaphors that promise change in lofty language. Instead the thesis strives to remain ethnographically grounded in order to reveal the pathways of empowerment that rural women are creating and walking. Such framing aims to understand a more generative theory of women's agency and to push back against neoliberal claims to discursive authority that seek to legitimate specific "development" interventions.

This thesis shows how Solomon Islands village women exercise agency to negotiate the politics of gender identity, and the gender of the political economy in ways that may remain ambiguous and refuse to fit neatly into handy discursive categories. Gender norms and women's ability to influence decision making at many levels are changing through a variety of messy factors: the influence of internationally generated gender equity discourse; gendered differential engagements with modernity; the creation of space and opportunities for women to engage in critical self-reflection; and control over material outcomes. I show that women employ creative strategies to effect change which occur at levels of both practical and strategic interests.

Finally, I argue for a culturally embedded understanding of agency which recognises different ways of transforming and utilising gender categories generated by village women. And that this model of change can be considered revolutionary in its own right. Ideologically, conceptually and materially it works towards changing ways of doing and validating different ways of being. Village women's strategies allow them to maintain their understandings of integrity and affirm the lives of those around them.

Item ID: 49574
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: agency, customary land tenure, development, equality, ethnography, feminist anthropology, gender role, gender, logging, natural resources management, neoliberalism, sex role, Solomon Islands, subsistence, women
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Additional Information:

For this thesis, Michelle Dyer received the Dean's Award for Excellence 2017.

Publications arising from this thesis are available from the Related URLs field. The publications are:

Chapter 4: Dyer, Michelle (2017) Eating money: narratives of equality on customary land in the context of natural resource extraction in the Solomon Islands. Australian Journal of Anthropology, 28 (1). pp. 88-103.

Date Deposited: 17 Jul 2017 00:59
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1601 Anthropology > 160104 Social and Cultural Anthropology @ 50%
16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1601 Anthropology > 160101 Anthropology of Development @ 25%
16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1699 Other Studies in Human Society > 169901 Gender Specific Studies @ 25%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9599 Other Cultural Understanding > 959999 Cultural Understanding not elsewhere classified @ 65%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9606 Environmental and Natural Resource Evaluation > 960604 Environmental Management Systems @ 15%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9606 Environmental and Natural Resource Evaluation > 960699 Environmental and Natural Resource Evaluation not elsewhere classified @ 20%
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