A Second Flowering

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Lilly Lui with one of her biggest fansA quiet revolution is taking place in North Efate.

Awareness of the rights of women in Vanuatu flowered briefly post-Independence thanks to the labours of eminent advocates such as Grace Molisa and Hilda Lini. They laboured continually to ensure that the neglected majority – Vanuatu’s women and children – were heard in the national dialogue.

Thanks to their generation, we have provincial and national Councils of Women, shelters in Vila and Santo and countless projects and services focused on improving conditions for women. To cap it all, over a decade of effort has finally given the Family Protection Act the force of law.

And yet, in spite of all this, women still face countless obstacles making themselves heard in daily life of the nation.

Lilly Lui wants women’s rights to bloom again as they did in the heady days following Independence. The sole female candidate in the upcoming Efate North bye-election, she has been entrusted by women throughout rural Efate to voice their concerns on the national stage.

Lilly is no fading flower. This garrulous, good-natured 32 year old learned first-hand that even the simplest victories require steadfast perseverance. Her father died when she was still a child. Her single mother moved the family to Santo and fostered them through years of adversity.

When her education was stalled by lack of school fees, Lilly wasn’t daunted. Rising before dawn every morning for years, she baked cakes. Carefully husbanding her meager resources, she worked her way through technical college, first in Port Vila, later in New Zealand, returning at last certified in tourism and hospitality.

Lui has been politically active for years. She left the Green Party only when she became convinced that there would never be a seat for her on the Executive. Her political education continued with her May election as President of the National Council of Women. Within a month, she says, she realised that the financial and factional mess within the organisation was chronic. Refusing to become implicated in its ongoing issues, she immediately resigned.

Her principled stand didn’t go unnoticed. Following her departure from the VNCW, she was approached by some North Efate women. Tired of pallid promises conveniently forgotten once the polls closed, mothers of all political stripes had decided to choose a candidate of their own. They approached Lilly and asked her if she would stand as their candidate.

Their concerns are simple and close to home. Many of them are the sole bread winner in their household, but the cost of selling food in the Market is crushing. Thousands of vatu for transport to and from Vila, daily table fees and incidental expenses are proving too heavy a burden. They even pay to use the toilet. For all their toil, they have barely enough to live on.

Add to that the difficulties they and their families face accessing basic social services like health and education. Their children often walk hours each day to and from school. Lui’s voice brims with compassion when she recounts the number of times she’s seen worried mothers standing at the roadside as the sun drops toward the horizon, still waiting for their children to return.

Lui has been touring North Efate villages, raising awareness about her constituents’ rights, reminding them that when they stand in the polling booth, they have the right and the responsibility to decide for themselves who they support.

Her simple message, tinged with Christian charity and focused on the day-to-day preoccupations of the people she’d been selected to represent, has already begun to resonate widely. On her first round of awareness meetings, roughly 850 women attended. By the second tour, that number had nearly doubled.

Her early success has given pause to the political establishment. One party leader sent emissaries to convince her to withdraw her candidacy. They implored her to come back to the party fold, explaining that she was too young, too green to run just now.

Her response was simple and direct: ‘For 29 years we’ve sheltered behind our men. Where has that got us? This year, we’ll speak for ourselves.’

At least one candidate has been heard warning village women to pay no attention to Lui’s simple, focused message. Chiding them for their foolishness, he reminded them that she was unproven, that when she arrived in the village, she had, contrary to kastom, no gifts to give them.

I asked Lui about how her campaign was funded. She admitted that she lacked the resources that the larger parties could bring to bear. Riding around the island in her husband’s taxi, she has committed her life savings to this campaign, but when she arrives in the village, she does so without the bags of rice, saucepans and sugar that many voters have come to expect as their due.

Her wealth is in the steadfastness of her supporters. Prior to one meeting, the chair of the local council of chiefs angrily announced that she was required to pay a 15,000 vatu fee. The wife of the paramount chief was thunderstruck by this last-minute demand. She implored Lui to stay, then spoke with her husband. The chief quickly apologised and waived the fee, but the women declined. They moved the meeting outside.

Lui’s candidacy is independent in nature as well as name. If elected, she has promised not to join any coalition. Sitting in the middle of the House, she will judge each policy on its own merits.

Acknowledging that history may weigh against her, Lui remains convinced that if she can only convince Efate women of her sincerity and devotion, ‘her’ half of the voting population could create a landslide similar to that of maverick MP Ralph Regenvanu.

Assisted by a small army of supporters throughout rural Efate, Lilly’s message is spreading. Even if she loses, women’s issues will be on everyone’s mind come election time. If she wins, there is a chance that the women’s movement in Vanuatu might flower again as it did a generation ago.