Honouring Pasifika’s feminists: Dr. Teresia Teaiwa

  • By Pauline Mago-King

    The walk to equality is a grueling path that many women know too well in the Pacific. Yet in the midst of all the unsettling stories we hear about gender inequality, there are compelling people who have taken up the gauntlet to help their kind.

    One such woman is the late Dr. Teresia Teaiwa, a former Pacific Studies lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

    Teresia Teaiwa Photo: RNZI/ Koroi Hawkins

    Last Tuesday, the remarkable Teresia was called to rest. While her departure has left a void in the hearts of many, she will always be remembered for her avid commitment towards the empowerment of Pacific women. She imparted to Pasifika that the advancement of women can work if we use feminism according to our own context.

    Three years ago, I was privileged to hear Teresia speak life into words that radiated with love for her home, Pasifika. She was a force to be reckoned with.

    Hailing from the small Pacific island of Banaba, Teresia knew first handedly what happens when women aren’t involved in development let alone considered in important policymaking. Her passion for feminism was a fight to save Pacific women who were drowning from violence, morbid maternal health, illiteracy, self-expression and the list goes on.

    The PhD holder was one of the handfuls of Pacific women who had managed to excel in life through education. Through education, Teresia saw that feminism has the power to generate a “wind of change” in a region that is still developing.

    Teresia was a unique feminist and it was her endeavor to create a sort of feminism suitable to the context of Pacific Island States that set her apart from others. She recognized that our traditions and cultures are dying, falling prey to globalization. Societies that were once matrilineal or practiced fairness are disintegrating like the threatened coral reefs on our Pacific shores.

    While others were oblivious to this reality, Teresia knew that one had to be innovative to truly foster Pacific Islander feminism.

    A firm believer of the Pacific feminist movement, Teresia’s life was dedicated to making women more visible in the economic, social and political decision-making processes. Her fierce and bold spirit was admirable in that she called it how she saw it. More importantly, she was able to declare that we do not just need a feminist movement that has been largely derived from the United Nations and human rights discourses. Instead, we need a feminist movement that integrates our Pacific values.

    As someone who was born in Hawai’i; raised in Fiji; had ancestral ties on the islands of Banaba and Tabiteuea in Kiribati; and later lived in Aotearoa New Zealand, Dr. Teresia Teaiwa held Pasifika dearly to her heart. Her work allowed her to not only traverse Pacific Islands like Guam, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kanaky New Caledonia, Samoa, Cook Islands and Te Ao Ma’ohi French Polynesia but to also shed light on Pacific Island feminism.

    While the Pacific and the world have lost an invaluable person, it is certain that Teresia’s stance on localizing feminism was not in vain. Quite frankly, it will pave the way for more concrete progress in women’s empowerment in the Pacific.

    Rest in peace, wantok.

    “My hope is that our localized forms of feminist thought and activism grow stronger – not
    for the purpose of disempowering others or over-empowering ourselves, but for the
    purpose of sharing power and cultivating an ethos of power sharing whatever we do,
    wherever we go.” – Dr. Teresia Teaiwa


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