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FEATURE STORY March 3, 2020

Breaking Barriers in Vanuatu: Constable Lavinia Mahit

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For International Women’s Day 2020, we’re getting to know the pioneering women across the Pacific and Papua New Guinea who are breaking barriers and creating change for the decade ahead. Constable Lavinia Mahit is the first Ni-Vanuatu woman to join the New Zealand Police Force. While she faces the ‘dark side’ of law enforcement every day, Lavinia is passionate about reframing the role of what Pacific women can do in both New Zealand and Vanuatu.

How did you end up living and working in New Zealand?

I was born in Auckland and my family moved back to Vanuatu when I was a couple of months old. But my parents always told me that when I was old enough that they would send me back to New Zealand  for studies and work.

Growing up in Vanuatu was really fun – I was always playing outside with my siblings and cousins. And then in 2004, my mom and sister flew with me to NZ for school; I started in Grade 8. I had to be very independent at a young age, but it boosted my confidence and I got to know myself better, even though I missed my family and friends back home. 

Did you always know you wanted to be a police officer?

No, I studied anthropology at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, here in NZ. When I finished my studies, I didn’t know what to do, but then I came across an article in the New Zealand Herald saying that Auckland needed more Pacific Island females in the police force. When I read that I just took it as a challenge and I applied.

Being on the job now, it has tied in with my degree and what I studied around cultural anthropology. My education has helped me in a lot of ways. I can deal with people based on their culture and I know how to approach them in a way that's receptive and respectful. 

Lots of people say becoming a police officer was a dream since childhood, or a police officer helped them and they wanted to be that change for someone else. I just read that article, but my passion is behind it all, which is helping people.

Have you faced any challenges as a Pacific woman in the NZ police force?

The majority of officers today are still men, but there has been a boost in getting more women to join the force overall. The challenges haven’t been because I’m a woman though. Mostly it’s the dark side of the job, like facing sudden death or dealing with suicide. Because nothing really prepares you to face what's in the streets and then switch it all off when you come home. 

Do you have a mentor on the force?

We have not been assigned mentors, but I've got some role models. Inspector Peter Stokes is the National Pacific Strategic Advisor for the NZ Police and he got me involved in helping with the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme. The scheme supports people from Pacific Island countries to come over to NZ to work on farms and orchards, but many of them don't really know the rules and laws here.

Inspector Stokes started a program where police officers from Pacific countries speak with the workers about the important laws and regulations we have in NZ in our first language, so that the workers have a safe time here and abide by the rules.

Do you see challenges around equality when you go back home to Vanuatu?

When I travel home, I see on the news and in the media that there is still a divide in people's perspectives, especially around inequality between the genders. Our kastom, our culture and traditions play a huge role in beliefs about men being superior. The government has recently changed some policies, but I believe there is still room for improvement.

Recently I watched a debate on TV in Vanuatu. What was strikingly important was there were Chiefs on this panel discussion and they said there's no kastom stopping or blocking women from entering politics. But each island has its own kastom where women are not meant to be heard or women's voices aren't encouraged. So, I think one of the huge setbacks is people's mindsets, attitudes and perspectives. They still see women as inferior to men.

There needs to be political will to bridging the equality gap between men and women in Vanuatu. Without that political drive there will be no progression. But, I think there also needs to be more unity, and not just between men and women, but also between women so they can put each other forward and boost each other's confidence.

What advice would you give to other Pacific women?

I'd say not to settle with a mediocre life, not to settle with what you're used to. If you have a dream or a passion, rise up to the challenges and obstacles that are in your way and work hard and your dream will surely be yours. Being a Christian growing up in Vanuatu I’d also say to keep the faith in yourself and God. Hold strong, for throughout my challenges and my experiences that’s what got me to where I am today – faith and strength. 

Follow World Bank Pacific on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss any of our Pacific Women Breaking Barriers series.

 

**The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.


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