Family life and gender roles in New Caledonia
With regard to my last post on etiquette, I’ve been asked about family life and gender roles in New Caledonia.
From what I have been able to observe and understand here on the ground in New Caledonia is that given the two different majority cultures (European and Melanesian), there are very different approaches to family life and gender roles.
Among the French/European populations, family life is as you’d find in the United States, Australia and other English-speaking countries. The family unit has moved over time from an extended-family model to a nuclear model. It is exacerbated in New Caledonia for the Metropolitans (or people who have come from France on short-term postings), who are obliged to leave extended family behind in France. They sometimes also leave their older sons and daughters behind to complete their university studies or to work (which is our case) and remain in contact via technology (email, phone, Skype texts). This means that families are cut off from direct support and assistance from their extended family and are unable to provide in-person support to their sons and daughters. The Caledonians, on the other hand, have closer contact with extended family as extended family are in most cases, still on the island.
With regard to gender roles among the European and French populations, again we find similarities with other countries. Though inequality remains between the sexes and females earn less than males in the workplace, we are seeing slightly more equality in the home. This being said, many Metropolitan spouses are unable to find work in New Caledonia due to rules around the hiring of locals (to ensure that locals are employed and are not out of work due to the influx of Metropolitans). This can translate into a higher percentage of stay-at-home spouses in New Caledonia. We’ve heard cases of loss of identity and depression among those spouses who are unable to work or find another role for themselves while here. This is particularly hard on those who have had careers before arriving in New Caledonia.
The island does tend to function from a 1950s mindset, requiring that the male of the home set up bank accounts, post office boxes, phone and electricity accounts. Wives must provide written permission from their husbands (and a copy of their IDs) to do so in their stead (which I must admit still baffles and frustrates me – as an independent Western female). I remember that I was told by an insurance company here in 2005 to be a good little wife and go home and discuss the matter with my husband, and that then he could come back and sign the papers. I could not believe my ears! Really? Are women considered that inferior? I’d never come up against such blatant sexism. Back in 2013, I find that sexism is still here – but no one has yet told me to be a good little wife and go home.
With regard to the Kanak approach to family life and gender roles, the clan, not the individual is the important element in traditional Kanak society. Life is based on communal principles achieved through village living, a system sometimes labelled by Westerners as “tribal socialism”. Generally, no one is or should be better or worse off than someone else, as equality is a cardinal rule. Village life ensures that nobody goes hungry or is uncared for – everyone contributes in some aspect, whether it is fishing, gathering food, tending fields, sculpting wood or repairing huts. In return, everyone reaps the rewards. The ancient Kanak code of la coutume keeps this system alive and it provides a common bond and understanding between all Kanaks.
Kanak women have a special status in the family. A woman generally becomes a member of her husband’s family after marriage, and children are named after the father. However, when a child is born, it is permanently linked to its mother’s clan through the mother’s brother, known as the “maternal” or “uterine” uncle; Kanya in one Melanesian tongue. The Kanya takes on a role in the child’s life that is more important than that of the father, because he is the child’s guardian and lifetime mentor.
We have been told that once a child is born, he/she belongs to the clan. The clan raises the child. Parental ownership is a foreign, Western concept, as is the concept of a nuclear family. “It takes a village to raise a child” is common practice among Kanaks.
Women in modern Kanak society face the contemporary problems of women in many countries. Because of the long-reaching influence of religion, contraception is something that is not often discussed. Alcohol abuse has lead to domestic violence and rape.
Source for much of the content on the Kanak approach to family life and gender roles: Logan, Leanne and Geert Cole (2001), New Caledonia, Lonely Planet Publications.