Diving into a society where gender norms differ vastly from those back in America can make for a difficult transition for female volunteers. As Americans, we have been raised in a society that continually strives for gender equality, and where women are now excelling in positions that were once uncharted territory. While this is one reality, Fijian society continues to instill the belief in young girls that they are to “be seen, but not heard”, and it is not always seen favorably on those who are quick to display their desire of pursuing options beyond settling down and starting a family. Being so strongly connected to their cultural roots, gender roles are extremely prominent in Fiji, and female volunteers may not initially understand the direct effects it will place on their daily life and work.
It was not until I began working as a family life teacher, that I began to understand how my gender would inhibit me from being seen as an equal to my fellow counterparts. During the first week of school, I was informed of the stress so commonly placed on my students, in combination with persisting family problems, and tried to discuss potential solutions with my coworkers. I discussed my role as a volunteer clearly, and presented the idea of adding a yoga program for the students to partake in as an outlet. Unfortunately, like many others, this idea was greeted with a blank stare and a smirk before my local counterparts excused themselves from the conversation. At this moment, it was apparent that I would have to work much harder than my male counterparts to prove my abilities as a petite 24-year-old woman. Nonetheless, my determination to advocate on the behalf of my students never wavered, and six months later, I was not only able to revisit the topic with my principal, but also successfully initiate the program. While this change of events only came about due to the Ministry of Education, whom sent an email to all high schools in Fiji, making it compulsory to include yoga programs to reduce stress, I was still overjoyed with the outcome.
I write this post not to discourage others, but instead, to simply share one volunteer’s story and shed some light onto everyday incidents and hurdles that female volunteers may experience if they should choose to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji. While admittingly tiring at times, the role of a female volunteer is highly significant. Not only do us females get the opportunity to gain knowledge and respect of the Fijian culture, but we also get the opportunity to be the trail blazers in areas we feel so passionately about, and positively influence and open the minds of local Fijians around us through our everyday actions. Working in schools, I have been given the freedom to openly discuss with my students the gender roles here in Fiji, and learn about the heart wrenching and inspiring stories of the many women and men who have made an impact in their lives. I have been able to witness my students grow, become empowered young adults, and speak up and address the inequalities in their society today and how to move towards a brighter future. While being a female volunteer here in Fiji can present additional barriers, these barriers have introduced countless learning opportunities in which I have been able to empower young women and men whom surround me.