L A N D   A N D   W O M E N

T H E   M A T R I  L I N E A L   F A C T O R

The  cases of the 

Republic of the Marshall Islands,

Solomon Islands

and Vanuatu

Pacifc Islands Forum Secretariat 2008

Research project managed by Joanne Lee Kunatuba, Gender Issues O cer, Paci c Islands Forum Secretariat

Copy-editing, book design and and layout by Mark Garrett Consulting, Suva. Cover design by Mark Garrett Consulting, Suva.

Photographs courtesy of south-paci c.travel. Permission to reproduce any photograph, whether for commercial/for pro t or non-pro t purposes must be requested in writing from south-paci c.travel.

Main cover picture © Philip Harvey


How well is our understanding of the current status of women in relation to land tenure, land management and access to land in matrilineal societies in the Pacific? This question forms the central objective of this research by Joel Simo, Ana Naupa, Kristina Stege and Ruth Maetala and Dr Elise Huffer commissioned by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in 2007.

The researchers attempt to improve our understanding of the roles of women over land in matrilineal societies in two dimensions. One dimension is examining women’s role with respect to land. The second dimension is examining the role of women in leadership, including decision- making. Both dimensions are explored in terms of the past and the present thereby allowing for the changes that might have occurred over time to be observed and how those changes impact on women’s current status with respect to land and leadership.

Unlike the first dimension which is centred within the confines of traditional values and structures, the second relates to the impact of modern land management practices, land laws and policies on the current status of women. The invariable influences of modern laws and polices on traditional land tenure and land practices do escape examination. Here, the impact of current land policies and laws with respect to women’s access to, management and ownership of land is evalu- ated. Examining these complex mixtures of roles by bridging the traditional with modern land management practices, laws and policies and how these impact on gender is what this research tries to address as simply as it possibly can.

The draft research findings were presented at the 10th Triennial Pacific Conference of Women, which was convened at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in Nouméa, New Caledonia in May 2007. This research complements other major research on land in the Pacific such as the AusAID funded Pacific Land Programme and the Land Management and Conflict Minimisation for Peace, Prosperity and Sustainable Development project managed by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

Research work around land continues to support the good governance pillar of the Pacific Plan, specifically the initiative in resource management, and in the harmonisation of traditional and modern values and structures, covering models for land ownership, tenures and use. The Pacific Isands Forum Secretariat appreciates the contributions of the authors – Joel Simo, Ana Naupa, Kristina Stege and Ruth Maetala and Dr Elise Huffer for their hard work in producing a quality product.

We hope that the ndings of this study will help inform and contribute to improved gender considerations in policy-making, law-making, land management practices, including access to land by women in matrilineal societies.

Feleti P Teo
Acting Secretary General
Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat


Elise Huffer

“The women here are so sure of themselves... maybe it’s that we know for sure that we have land... Even if I don’t get land from my husband, I still have it from my mother and nothing can change that...”

— (Palauan woman [no name given], cited in Margold and Bellorado, 197?)

This report brings together three studies on matrilineal land tenure carried out in the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI), Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. The respective authors, Kristina Stege, Anna Naupa and Joel Simo, and Ruth Maetala, conducted their research in at least two areas in each country – including one urban and one rural – with the overall objective of providing a better understanding of the current status of women in relation to land tenure, land management and access to land in matrilineal areas.

This work is aimed at contributing a gendered perspective to the current regional focus on land issues and reform, particularly initiatives such as the Paci c Islands Forum Secretariat’s Land Man- agement and Con ict Minimization for Peace, Prosperity and Sustainable Development project (LMCM) and AusAID’s Paci c Land Program. It is also designed to provide updated, accessible and locally derived information and recommendations for national land policy and legislative changes currently taking place in the three focal countries.

Land is treasured in the Paci c, but it is often forgotten how precious it is to women. The modern emphasis on commercial agriculture, extractive and other commercial activities has often marginalized women, sometimes robbing them of their roots, status and authority. Governments, mirroring church and colonial administrations, have, for the most part, disregarded women’s attachment to, and dependence on, land.

There is nonetheless an increasing acknowledgement regionally and nationally that gender equality in resource management is not only fair but also economically and socially desirable. This acknowledgement is in part fuelled by the adoption of international human rights conven- tions and platforms such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, translating human rights into national and local contexts is not always easy and can elicit negative reactions.

An alternative or complementary means to promoting a gender lens in land matters is to examine women’s cultural roles, past and present, in land tenure and management. This three- country study seeks to do this by focusing particularly on matrilineal areas where it was assumed that women, potentially, play stronger roles1 and have greater in uence in land a airs.2

Matriliny has disappeared in some parts of the Paci c. Remaining matrilineal areas have not been well studied in terms of women’s relationship to, and roles with respect to, land. 3 The last publication dedicated speci cally to women and land was published 20 years ago.4 There is there- fore a lack of updated and detailed information on women’s roles with respect to land in general and on matrilineal land in particular.

To our knowledge, there has been no comparative assessment or regional mapping of matriliny in the Paci c.5 This study clearly cannot ll this gap, but we hope that it will generate greater interest and closer attention to women’s decision-making and resource management roles in local communities, in both matrilineal6 and patrilineal areas. Although the authors of the three studies draw on anthropological work, this report is not driven by purely academic concerns. It is de- signed to provide a snapshot of the status and in uence of women in selective matrilineal areas
across the region today in order to inform policy makers and encourage further applied as well as scholarly work on the relationship between women, land and natural resources in the region. We consider this important for local, national and regional level policy making and implementation.

Additional objectives of the studies are to 1) better understand the relationship between women’s roles with respect to land and their roles in leadership in matrilineal areas, past and present, and 2) evaluate the impact of current land policies and laws on women’s access to, man- agement and ownership of land.

Matriliny and land in the Paci c

Many areas of the region have traditionally been matrilineal, particularly across the western and northern parts of the Paci c.7 In these places land has generally been transmitted through the mother’s line and in some cases women have exercised signi cant responsibility over land.8 Among the Nagovisi of Bougainville described by Jill Nash (1987: 158), women played “an essential part in lineage discussions and decision making with regard to pig distributions, land use and compensation settlement....” She adds that the women look after descent property and that brothers play an advisory role. Among the Tubetube of the Massim (South-East Papua New Guinea), writes Macintyre (1987), “decisions about land are deemed the province of women” as they are the “reproducers of lineage identity”. Women are involved in public debates about “land use, property rights and inter-lineage disputes”. In his discussion of Namonuito Atoll in Chuuk, John Byron Thomas (1980: 175) writes that the inhabitants deem it logical that “women should act as the primary caretakers of the clan’s assets – land and children...” because they “stay” on the land and hold the knowledge related to it,9 including its boundaries and history. The women thus manage the land and men, again, play an advisory role. Byron adds that no man would take action on land matters without rst “obtaining the approval of a senior female of his descent group”.

The above are examples of matrilineal areas in which women play strong roles in land manage- ment and are the main actors. In other matrilineal societies men have been the actors and women the advisers. But as the case studies particularly of Vanuatu and Solomon Islands will show, women’s roles are (increasingly) constrained by male domination.10

The status, authority and power of women similarly vary across matrilineal areas.11 In some places, matriliny is synonymous with gender equality and women holding leadership positions. For instance, Lepowsky (1993: 40) writes that in Vanatinai (South-East Papua New Guinea) there are “big-women” or giagia (givers) a title which is gender neutral, (as there are in other parts of Papua New Guinea and the Nagovisi of Bougainville). 12 She adds that women can hold sig- ni cantly more prestige than their husbands through their role as giagia. Even though there are fewer women than men who engage in traditional exchange “there are also some women who are far more active in exchange and feasting than the majority of men” (1990: 38). Another example is provided by Jill Nash (1987: 151) who notes that Nagovisi women “have substantial and important rights” and that “there is...equality between men and women”. Martha Macintyre (1987: 212) states that for the Tubetube, political power is held equally by both genders: “Both men and women have kaiwe [power] and both men and women can make decisions which e ect or enforce changes in the lives of others”. However, in other matrilineal places, women have much less autonomy and say in decision-making.13

Women’s positions appear to be stronger when postmarital residence is matrilocal or uxorilo- cal14 as well or bilocal, rather than virilocal or patrilocal.15 This may be in part because when women remain in their own lineage land or move only temporarily to their husband’s, they are better placed to in uence what happens there. But it is also because, as explained by Macintyre,
women can retain greater independence from their husbands: “In the years when she resides in her husband’s hamlet, a Tubetube woman’s independence of her husband’s lineage is publicly proclaimed in the gifts of yam, pigs and pots brought by her brothers and sisters” (1987: 224).

During contact, missionary and colonial times some matrilineal areas gradually became patri- lineal in terms of title inheritance and/or land ownership and transmission. This occurred across the region including, it seems, in parts of Vanua Levu in Fiji,16 Tokelau,17 as well as in some islands of the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu18 and Solomon Islands as demonstrated in the studies which follow.19 Pohnpei provides a clear example of the in uence of colonial administration on land tenure20: it was a German law that introduced patrilineal land inheritance and awarded “each adult male a piece of land”. Land is now commonly transferred from father to son although daughters can and do also inherit land (Petersen, 1982).21

The demise of matriliny or of aspects of it in some places (e.g. the decline in the social in u- ence of women) has been attributed to a variety of factors.22 These range from social disruption caused by depopulation through disease; colonial-era land alienation; patriarchal land laws; the legacy of missionization and conservative interpretations of Christianity;23 the promotion of males in education and in the formal economy from colonial times to the present;24 women’s generalized exclusion from public o ce and electoral politics; and ever-increasing pressures on land today due to population increases, to the pressing daily need for cash.

Petersen’s (1982) account of Ponhpei, where he was old by both men and women that in the past women were “more important”, provides an illustration. He attributes the change mainly to the shifting roles of men and women caused by new conditions. Women in the past had been im- portant producers of ceremonial craft goods as well as of dry land taro, which was a traditionally important crop. In converse the role of men in agriculture grew following a signi cant decline in population due to disease, and men’s abandonment of warfare – which became too violent with the introduction of European weapons (a change demanded by missionary and colonial authorities). Men also engaged in new cash productive activities which enhanced their in uence. As Petersen explains: “the importation of manufactured goods, largely paid by the labor of men, displaced the craft work of women. By the end of the 19th century weaving had disappeared on Ponape. The ne tapa cloth, belts, headbands, sails, mats and ornaments had been replaced by the products of European, Japanese and American factories. Where once Ponapean women had produced the exchange goods that knit together their society, now they relied on men’s agricul- ture or wage labor to produce the capital to purchase exchange goods. From a position of equal partnership in production, women were turned into consumers” (1982: 137).25

Another example of a matrilineal society which was heavily a ected by colonial rule is Guam. Matrilineage was abolished by American rule and, from 1919 on, married women were forced to take on their husband’s surname as were their children. This was reinforced by the Guam Code of 1953 (subsequently undone in 1980 by the Guam legislature). However, as Souder argues in her Daughters of the Island, Chamorro women have managed to continue to “hold signi cant and powerful positions in Chamorro social structure” and they remain keepers and transmitters of ge- nealogical knowledge.26 This no doubt is due to the enduring strength of the “matrifocal kinship system” among the Chamorro.

Lepowsky notes how religious and government authorities have devalued the role of women in Vanatinai. She notably relates how government o cials from other non-matrilineal parts of Papua New Guinea do not even seem aware of the “presence of female giagia” and do not expect to deal with women. Their visits make the women (many of whom do not speak English) uncomfortable and as a result women have kept out of the sphere of electoral politics at all levels: local, provin- cial and national. Politics is now the domain of young, formally educated men who speak English and have spent time away from the island. Lepowsky adds that church o cials from both Prot- estant and Catholic denominations other than the nuns who are in any case seen as subservient
to the priests, like government authorities, “expect to deal with Vanatinai men” (44). As a result, women are excluded from important activities and sources of political power. They rarely venture o -island, are not part of the cash economy and are not participating in introduced politics, all “avenues... [which] are e ectively closed to women” (44).27

Matrilineal land and women today

This report does not seek to reinvent or ‘reify’ the role of women and their links to land or argue that women’s positions with respect to land have declined systematically everywhere in the region,28 but it is concerned, as stated, with nding out what their present situation is and how it compares with the past. We acknowledge that this is not always easy to do accurately but it is important to try to understand the changes that have taken place and where that has led women today. Clearly not all matrilineal societies have been as gender ‘equal’ as the examples provided above but there is a sense in the Micronesian countries29 as well as in other places, that women who have a strong links to land through matriliny also have strong legitimacy to claim a promi- nent role in other spheres of public life.30

Prominent women from matrilineal areas have made statements about how important their relationship to land is to their present roles in leadership. One such example is the speech given by the Deputy Speaker of Bougainville’s Autonomous Government’s Parliament, the Honourable Francesca Semoso, in 2006 where she describes how women’s importance as caretakers of the land and of family wealth has had direct political rami cations in the contemporary context, concluding: “I rmly believe that our matrilineal system has played a very important role in the creation of three seats in the three regions of Bougainville.” 31

But there is also a sense that women’s roles in matrilineal societies have been ignored, poorly understood and even dismissed in contemporary times, which in some places has had dire con- sequences. This comes out clearly in Elizabeth Momis’s discussion on the role of Bougainville women in peace making32 where she emphasizes that although the causes for the eruption of violence were manifold, one of the problems was the dismissal of “the matrilineal nature of Bou- gainville society”. She particularly points the nger at Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) who “disregarded” the appointment in 1989 by the Panguna Landowners Association of their repre- sentative who was a woman. BCL, who “looked down on” her, instead “appointed their own man” which led to problems in the distribution of royalties, and the ensuing con ict.

The dismissal of women is an issue also raised by Julia Byford in the context of mining in Misima (Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea). According to Byford, before gold mining began in 1989 women had a “relatively high status” based on their “central role in land ownership” and played a “relatively prominent role in public life, church and community a airs”. Mining led to a decline in women’s status by changing their relationship to land. In addition they were not part of the negotiations process and compensation was distributed to men only. She concludes that when the mine’s operations cease it is unlikely that women will regain their former relationship to the land and their former status.33

Women’s roles in history have often been neglected, a point noted by Souder for whom “the Chamorro women is virtually invisible in formal historical accounts” (1987: 43). This neglect has continued into the present when it comes to land and natural resource management and use. This report is a step in assessing the role of women in this area and it is not meant to exclude women in patrilineal areas, rather the matrilineal focus is meant as a small introduction into what is hoped will be much greater and more detailed attention given to women, land and natural resource management in the future.


Allen, Michael, 2000. ‘Rethinking old problems; matriliny, secret societies and political evolution” in Michael Allen (ed.) Ritual, Power and Gender: Explorations in the Ehtnography of Vanuatu, Nepal and Ireland, Sydney Studies in Society and Culture 19, published by The Sydney Associ- ation for Studies in Society and Culture and Manohar Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi.

Allen, Michael, 1981 (ed). Vanuatu: Politics, Economics and Ritual in Island Melanesia, Sydney: Academic Press.

Byford, Julia, 2002. One day rich; community perceptions of the impact of the Placer Dome Gold Mine, Misima Island, Papua New Guinea, in Tunnel Vision: Women, Mining and Communities, anthology edited by Ingrid Macdonald and Claire Rowland, Oxfam Community Aid Abroad, November 2002.

Chowning, Ann, 1987. ‘Women are our business’: women, exchange and prestige in Kove, in Marilyn Strathern (ed.), Dealing with Inequality: Analysing Gender Relations in Melanesia and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Deane, Rev., W., 1921. Fijian Society or the Sociology and Psychology of the Fijians, Macmillan and and Co., Limited, London.

Divale, William, 1984. Matrilocal Residence in Pre-Literate Society, Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press: Studies in Cultural Anthropology.

Facey, Ellen, 1981. ‘Hereditary Chiefship in Nguna’ in Allen, Michael, 1981 (ed). Vanuatu: Politics, Economics and Ritual in Island Melanesia, Sydney: Academic Press.

Hooper, Anthony and Judith Huntsman (translators and editors), 1991. Matagi Tokelau,: History and Traditions of  Tokelau, O ce for Tokelau A airs, Apia and Institute of Pacific Studies, Uni-versity of the South Pacific, Suva.

Gardère, Françoise and David Routledge, eds. 1991. History of Macuata, from a manuscript found in the Catholic mission, Nabala, Macuata. Cultural Services of the French Embassy in Fiji.

Lepowsky, Maria, 1990. Big Men, Big Women, and Cultural Autonomy, Ethnology, Jan 1990, 29 (1), 35-51.

Lepowsky, Maria, 1993. Fruit of the Motherland: Gender in an Egalitarian Society, New York: Columbia University Press.

Linnekin, Jocelyn, 1990. Sacred Queens and Women of Consequence: Rank, Gender, and Colonialism in the Hawaiian Islands, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Howard, Alan, 1964. ‘Land Tenure and Social Change in Rotuma’, in Journal of the Polynesian Society 73:26-52. Accessed at: http://www.rotuma.net/os/howsel/5landchange.html

Macgregor, Gordon, 1937. Ethnology of Tokelau Islands, Bernice Bishop Museum. Accessed at http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-MacToke-t1-body-d1-d11-d1-d5.html (Victoria Uni- versity of Wellington Library Catalogue).

Macintyre, Martha, 1987. “Flying witches and leaping warriors: supernatural origins of power and matrilineal authority in Tubetube society”, in Marilyn Strathern (ed.), Dealing with Inequality: Analysing Gender Relations in Melanesia and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Margold, Jane and Donna Bellorado, 197? Matrilineal Societies of the Pacific: a look at the power of contemporary Island women. Unpublished

Petersen, Glenn 1982. Ponapean Matriliny: Production, Exchange, and the Ties That Bind”, Amer- ican Ethnologist 9, 129-144.

Souder, Laura, Maria, Torres, 1987. Daughters of the Island: Contemporary Chamorro Women Organizers on Guam, Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam and University Press of America.

Strathern, Marilyn, 1987. Dealing with Inequality: Analysing Gender Relations in Melanesia and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Young, Michael, W., 1987.The tusk, the ute and the serpent: disguise and revelation in Good- enough mythology”, in Strathern, Marilyn, (ed). Dealing with Inequality: Analysing Gender Rela- tions in Melanesia and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weiner, Annette, B., 1976. Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives in Trobriand Exhange, University of Queensland Press.


1  For instance, in the case of Vanuatu, Michael Allen (1981: 3) writes that in the matrilineal areas of Vanuatu which he lists as: “the Torres and Banks Islands, Maewo, North Pentecost, east Aoba [Ambae], Espiritu Santo, and Efate and its o shore islands as far north as Tongoa”, “there are strong prima facie grounds for expecting both a higher status accorded to women and a marked reduction in male hegemony”.

2  We acknowledge that there is a debate about this (see for instance Chowning 1987) but agree with Lepowsky that matriliny does not necessarily confer in itself greater status or power to women but as a general rule, it does provide the potential for it: “Matrilineal descent provides the preconditions favourable to the development of female political and economic power, but it does not ensure it” (1993: 297).


3  Matriliny has been mainly the concern of ethnographers and anthropologists. As Lepowsky (1993: 33) points out, it is a topic which has been debated for over a hundred years but much of early writing on matriliny was by male researchers who viewed it as the “survival of an archaic social form dating from a matriarchal past in which women has power over men and women’s sexuality was unregulated.” Thus for a long time matriliny was seen as preceding the “more highly evolved patrilineal form of social organization”. Allen (2000: 32) also notes that for early ethnographers in north Vanuatu such as Rivers, Layard and Deacon, matrilineal systems were an early form of evolution destined to be replaced by more ‘advanced’ or ‘superior’ patrilineal institutions.

4  See Land Rights of Pacific Women, authored by Cema Bolabola et al., published in 1987 by the Institute of Pacific Studies, USP.

5  Studies of matriliny in the Pacific have focused on particular islands or communities, and mainly on Papua New Guinea and in parts of the Northern Pacific.

6  There are matrilineal areas where women do not play or no longer play a role in land management. See for instance the case of Trobriand Islanders reported in Weiner 1976. See also Petersen, 1982, and Scott 2007.

7  Most of Micronesia is matrilineal (Palau, FSM, RMI, Nauru, Guam, Northern Marianas).

8  There are instances of matriliny where lineage, but not land, is transmitted through mothers. In the case of Pohnpei, for instance, “land is controlled through the male line, but access to the most important titles is controlled through the female lines” (Petersen, 1982: 131). This occurred because of German influence. Vanuatu also had examples of lineage being passed through the mother but land being handed down patrilineally. See report by Anna Naupa and Joel Simo.
9  This knowledge is described as wuruwo (“secret lore”) and is held especially by the senior women of the descent group. For full details see Thomas, 1980.

10  See Chowning 1987: 130 also on matrilineal societies where men tend to dominate society generally.