Being a woman Land Recorder in Solomon Islands: Realities, challenges and successes

April 8, 2021

Mary E. Tegavota [left], National Recorder, Land Reform Unit, Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey and Hellen Ohukeni, Director, Tribal Land Recording Unit, Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey; (Photo: UNDP/Anastasiia Tiurmenko)

Empowering women and developing inclusive laws and policies is a core commitment of UNDP. It requires equal participation and representation of women in decision-making on matters affecting their livelihood and communities. About 417 000 women currently live in Solomon Islands today, which is about 58 percent of the total population. Despite that, women’s participation in leadership and decision-making at senior levels is low. According to the Solomon Islands Country Gender Assessment, while women make up 40 percent of public servants, they occupy only five-percent of senior public servant positions and 22 percent of mid-level positions.

Traditional customs are a major part of Solomon Islands' life, including customary land tenure by which matrilineal and patrilineal clans own the majority of the land. Traditional norms influence gender relations in different Solomon Islands cultures regarding labour division, property rights, and decision-making.

Women’s empowerment and gender equality are defined as a key priority of the Solomon Islands Government. Ministers in all sectors share the responsibility for ensuring and achieving equal rights with men, especially in the lands sector.

Through its relevant Customary Land Reform Division with UNDP’s Inclusive Governance of Natural Resources Project’s support, the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey is mandated to provide policy guidance on how customary land be made equally available and accessible for future development.

UNDP Solomon Islands talked to a few women who hold senior positions at the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey and work towards promoting women’s land rights, their further involvement and active presence in consultations and other negotiating processes. Land policies are being developed. 

In pursuit of equality through eliminating gender stereotypes

Mary E. Tegavota, National Recorder, Land Reform Unit, Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey (Photo: UNDP/Anastasiia Tiurmenko)

Mary Tegavota joined the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey as a Chief Legal Officer in 2014. After a three-year journey with the Ministry, she was chosen to for the National Recorder position. “That post required a law degree, which I have. Knowing that this is going to be both challenging and fulfilling, I accepted the role and resumed my duties,” she said.

Even though, in some parts of Solomon Islands, people abide by the matrilineal system where women are the custodian and inheritors of the land and natural resources and, some of these traditional systems have been overtaken by men who became not only the ‘spokesperson’ but the decision-maker regarding the land and natural resources issues, leaving women behind. Notably, being a woman land recorder is always challenging, especially when you visit rural communities.

“You feel you’re treated differently. This is challenging but also fulfilling: challenging because wherever you go, you hear people’s stories, you feel empathy for them. Yet, it is fulfilling because you learn a lot of new things, you meet new people with whom you can bring important changes to their communities.”

About 85 percent of the Solomon Islands' landmass is Customary Land, regulated by unwritten laws and oral tradition passed down from generation to generation. Customary land remains an issue that is yet far from being resolved in terms of how land is registered and secured for management to providing sustainability for customary landowners and tribal groups. Land disputes still rank high, and development is stalled from land issues relating to land rights representation and execution.

Among her great achievements while working with the Ministry, Ms Tegavota provided recommendations to the Land reform to take over the implementation of the Customary Land Recording which the Inclusive Governance of Natural Recourses project is working alongside the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey.

“From where I stand now, I can see my motivation has also changed. We evolved together. When I was younger, I wanted to pursue my family aspirations and dreams, and now I know and feel I am working for people, our nation, our country, our future.”

Becoming a Ministry’s family member

Hellen Ohukeni, Director, Tribal Land Recording Unit, Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey. (Photo: UNDP/Anastasiia Tiurmenko)

Hellen Ohukeni joined the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey as a Trainee in 1997. After the first-hand experience with the Ministry, she attended college to undertake the training concerning survey drafting.  

“Working for the Ministry in the land sector means you are trying to help people. As a woman in this sector, you know you’re given more responsibility and you have to gain people’s trust. Yet, on the other hand, understanding that future generations will lead by my and other women’s examples keeps motivating us every day.”

Sooner or later, every woman in the land sector catches herself on the thought: ‘where all this going?’. Going back to 2002, Hellen was unsure if she could have continued to pursue a career in the Ministry of Lands. She had a clear understanding, she had to compete with male colleagues in order to get a promotion. A break and deep re-thinking of the situation were needed. In 2004, Hellen received a scholarship in Land Management at University of the South Pacific.

Empowering women and promoting their involvement in decision-making in the land sector requires giving them access to political participation on an equal footing with men. To a large extent, this can be achieved by providing women with certain positions and equal career advancement opportunities.

“As women, when we do things, we’re trying to be careful and to do things the best that we can, when you see the impact of the work that you’re doing, changes in people’s lives, especially women’s and girls, children and people with disabilities. That is how I grow, how I learn and succeed.”

“Yet, being a woman in this particular field gives you a privilege to serve your nation as the majority of Solomon Islands’ lives depend on the land and its use.”

In close partnership with UNDP Solomon Islands and UN Women Multi-Country Office in Fiji, the Ministry of Lands, Housing, and Survey started implementing Customary Land Recording Exercise in 2020.

Customary land rights form a complex overlapping set of access and use rights over an area of land. In Solomon Islands, customary rights over land are generally rights held by a group of people as tribes, clans or families, where they can allocate use rights to individuals. Customary tenure arrangements are fluid and flexible and are highly negotiable. Overlapping sets of customary tenure rights can lead to disputes.

“In a nutshell, land recording is an empowerment to the tribal members, something that has never been done in the past. Most importantly, the way the customary land recording is being implemented is what has come out from people. In the land recording [process] comes unity and peacebuilding. Ultimately, it will sustain economic stability in the country.”

With the 2030 Agenda as a guiding thread, UNDP and UN Women work to advance women’s participation in civic and political life, their economic empowerment and their role as builders of peace and resilience.

The article is prepared by the Inclusive Governance of Natural Resources (IGNR) project implemented by UNDP in Solomon Islands and UN Women Multi-Country Office in Fiji funded by the UN Peacebuilding Fund to support and empower local youth and women of Solomon Islands to ensure they have equal representation and participation in decision-making and negotiating processes.