THE POWER AND PRIDE OF PALAU WOMEN

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By Giff Johnson

KOROR, Palau (June 15, 2001 - Pacific Magazine/PINA Nius Online)---The November election of Sandra Sumang Pierantozzi as Palau’s Vice President is a visible demonstration of the power of women in this small, western Pacific island group. That there are seven female attorneys, two of whom are judges, is no surprise. Nor that 13 women doctors and two dentists have swelled the ranks of Palau’s hospital.

In most urbanized Pacific islands today, custom is on the downslide, and many traditional leaders seem bent on clinging to anachronistic traditions that, paradoxically, are quickening the pace of their rejection by younger islanders. Bilung Gloria Salii, one of the two ranking traditional women leaders, says "we need to regenerate the custom among young people because they’re losing it." But her view of custom’s future -- "we should keep the good part, and it’s OK to drop the bad" -- is very likely to strengthen, rather than diminish, its role in Palau.

Women have chosen to take on the inexorable conflicts between custom and modernization in a uniquely Palauan manner. Their deep appreciation for their traditional system hasn’t prevented them from taking a proactive role in revising custom to fit modern life. The enormous financial burden that customs put on individual families has been of grave concern. Funerals, birthdays and other events can cost literally tens of thousands of dollars. So women leaders in Palau decided several years ago that two customs had to be changed. Now there are no -- repeat, no -- customary financial obligations in November, December and January, allowing parents to save for Christmas and school fees. Similarly, funerals have been limited to one day.

This month, Pacific Magazine features a cross-section -- though by no means a definitive list -- of prominent Palauan women who are broadly representative of the many facets of "women’s work" in Palau: culture and custom, social/environmental activism, business, government and law, and education.

Several of those featured are engaged in multiple avocations that blur the ability to clearly label them, underscoring the multi-dimensional personalities of many of Palau’s leading women.

KATHY KESOLEI

Kathy Kesolei returned home from the University of Hawai‘i in 1972 "full of grandiose ideas," including the plan to write the definitive history of Palau. "I wanted to know more about myself and my islands, and to be able to explain (the custom) in a logical and organized manner," she says. She was trained as an anthropologist at UH and did eventually write a history of Palau, but one very different than she set out to write as she discovered the conflict of putting into print intensely personal histories.

Kesolei rose to prominence as the long-time head of the Palau Community Action Agency, a U.S. federally-funded agency. "When I returned from school, the government was too stifling and static for me," she recalls. "PCAA was exciting. It funded us to explore new ideas."

In the 1970s and 1980s, under Kesolei’s lead, PCAA sponsored everything from cultural activities to village-based economic development projects.

Today, she’s the spokeswoman for one of the two leading female traditional leaders. She also directs another federally-funded program, School-to-Work, helping high school students with career choices. She finds few young people today with the kind of aspirations she had. Nowadays, "kids seem more self-centered, not as concerned with the community," she says. "It frustrates me and it’s why I’m with this (STW) program to help kids broaden their horizons." Despite this frustration, she’s an optimist. "I marvel at the intelligence and ability of the kids today."

MAURA MECHAET GORDON

Half a dozen people sit tapping away at computer terminals connected to the Internet; a few feet away, several tables are filled with young people chatting over colas and sandwiches. This is Café@Palau, Koror’s only Internet business. That it is successful is without doubt: traffic flows here, where the computers remain busy from early morning until long after dark. Established in mid-2000, it was the brainchild of Maura Mechaet Gordon, an energetic entrepreneur and conservationist.

It started out mainly servicing visitors -- "dive and tour operators were relieved to have our Internet service," she says. But it has become popular with Palauans as well. The café offers breakfast, lunch and desserts, which attracts many non-Internet-using customers. Gordon sees numerous spin-off business opportunities from the café, including Internet shopping and searches, and document preparation.

But the café is just the most recent of Gordon’s ventures. She was a founder of the Palau Conservation Society, which has played a significant role in influencing development in Palau. She’s also a key player in the Palau Resource Institute. It conducts socio-economic impact studies of proposed development schemes for government agencies and businesses -- another means of shaping development in environmentally and socially acceptable ways.

What Gordon especially likes about Café@Palau is it is almost completely run by high school and Palau Community College students. "The kids know computers, and we’re providing them with job experience," she says.

BILUNG GLORIA SALII

Bilung Gloria Salii is one of the two preeminent female traditional leaders in Palau -- a person who frequently presides over acrimonious land disputes among Palauans. But it was trial by fire as she came to the title unexpectedly and at a youthful age. Her uncle, the Ibedul, the male equivalent to her title, died in 1972, while she was in the United States. She was called home to exercise his title until the new Ibedul, her brother, could return from service in the U.S. Army. Salii acted as Ibedul for a year while also representing her elderly grandmother, who was the queen. She has held the title Bilung since 1975.

"It was difficult at the beginning," she says, adding that it wasn’t until the 1980s that she became comfortable in her traditional role. She learned from her grandmother that there is a way to resolve title disputes without angering people provided she remained neutral. As more people go to court over land problems, Salii has to testify in court. "I don’t want to take sides," she says. "If I testify, afterwards I try to make the other side understand. I don’t play favorites."

She’s brought Palauan women together through national women’s conferences, which she chairs. They take on critical issues, including spouse abuse, health problems, development, prostitution, adapting custom in the modern context. Using her customary clout to address key community concerns has greatly expanded the ability of women to motivate action in the male-dominated political system.

FAUSTINA "TINA" REHUHER

It was so rare to find foreign-educated Palauans returning to the village in the 1970s that many people asked Faustina "Tina" Rehuher why she wanted to go back to Babeldaob to teach. "They said, ‘Why go back there? There’s no running water or electricity or paved roads,’ " she recalls. But for Rehuher, who now directs the Belau National Museum, the village was in her blood. She grew up in Ngerchelong, the northern-most village on Babeldaob, the largest island in Palau. "Three of us were the last in our family to leave for school," she says. "We grew up weaving, dancing, chanting – it’ a part of me."

After going to school in the United States, where she joined activist movements, Rehuher decided to head to the village to teach. "It was like reliving my childhood, using my survival skills," she says, adding that one of her jobs involved tutoring students at night by the light of kerosene lanterns. Looking back, she observes: "No matter how technologically advanced we are, cultural strength and a sense of self-identity provides security. By learning traditional skills, you’ll survive anywhere."

In more recent years, Rehuher has been instrumental in the cultural renaissance in Palau. Her efforts have also led to Palau winning the bid to host the 2005 Pacific Festival of Arts -- the first time that a north Pacific Island group will host this cultural extravaganza since it kicked off in Fiji in the early 1970s.

KATHLEEN M. SALII

Earlier this year, Supreme Court Associate Justice Kathleen M. Salii was asked by a group of seventh graders why she wanted to be a lawyer. She replied that when she was younger, she admired her uncle Carlos Salii, who is a prominent attorney, and it was an opportunity to be her own boss. Oh yes, and law school was easier than medicine. Her advice to the students: choose a career you want, not one others say you should take up.

The daughter of the late Lazarus Salii, a former President, she received her law degree from the University of Denver in Colorado in 1993. After returning to Palau, she worked in private practice and for the Attorney General’s office in Koror before being appointed to the Supreme Court last year.

Salii, who is 36, is often reminded that she’s not "old enough" for the job. "The criticism is that I’m too young to know the custom," she says. "I hear it every day. But I’m Palauan and I know more than someone from outside."

Two things have eased her transition to the bench. Salii grew up on Saipan, living there for 15 years. "It’s definitely an advantage," she says, because it gives her greater neutrality not having gone to school with everyone who appears before her.

And, having worked with most local lawyers while with the AG’s office, Salii knows the tricks of the trade. "They can’t get away with the things they do with other (non-Palauan) judges," she says.

For additional reports from Pacific Magazine, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Magazines/Journals/Pacific Magazine.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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