Standing up for the Future: Young agents of change in Kiribati
Despite facing the uncertainties of a climate-changed future, it’s the optimism and energy of young Kiribati women that inspires volunteer, Roi Burnett.
“Their drive is infectious!” says Roi who is on assignment in Kiribati working as a youth development officer for Aia Maea Ainen Kiribati (AMAK), the umbrella women’s organisation representing women’s agencies in Kiribati.
“In my job, I go around the country meeting with young women and men. I love getting to talk to young people just like me. They are not just sitting around talking about a hopeless future where their country may disappear and everyone becomes climate refugees. They are driven and motivated and hopeful. They want to learn new skills to help build their resilience and better adapt to the changing environment,” says Roi.
“There are regular meet ups organised by youth groups to help grow awareness of taking more care of the environment. A few weeks ago, I joined a walk-a-thon for cleaning up a causeway. We picked up 60 rubbish bags worth of rubbish along a 2km stretch and on another weekend I joined a big working bee for planting mangroves. (Mangroves are essential coastal plants to help mitigate the impact of coastal erosion.) There’s a real buzz and energy and a desire to take action.“
Erimeta Barako, one of the co-ordinators at AMAK says it’s the young people who are leading these initiatives.
“Climate change as a relatively recent issue is not something the elders really understand – so they are less likely to know what initiatives could be undertaken to address the negative changes of it. It is probably why youth are the leading initiatives on this.”
“I remember when climate change was first raised as an issue, and how migration could be an option; one of the things elders would not accept was that God would allow a second flooding of the earth after the biblical Noah flooding and the promise signified by a rainbow. Youth of this generation are growing up in a generation very different to their elders, so it is not surprising that they should lead these initiatives.”
Adapting to climate change
In many of the women’s groups run by either the church or the community, Roi observes there is a focus on finding new solutions for adapting to a changing environment. For example, within the buoyant handicrafts industry, women come together in small village and co-operative groups and make beautiful bags, jewellery and mats by hand to sell at markets. But now there is a desire for diversification.
“Making these handicrafts provides women with a small living and gives them a strong sense of purpose. But they are worried that the natural materials they use, like pandanus leaves for weaving, may disappear with climate change. They are looking to diversify the materials and their skills so these enterprises are not entirely focused on natural resources. Some women are looking to recycle or upcycle materials and even looking for skills training in other areas.
While the concern over environmental adaptability is growing, it goes hand in hand with the uncertainty of education and employment for Kiribati youth.
“They worry what they will do after high school,” says Roi. “There’s only limited job opportunities in Tarawa. The goal for many is to apply for scholarships for overseas universities. There are some domestic tertiary options but not enough to cater for everyone. Add to that the cultural barriers for women and youth and you realise they have a lot of challenges!”
Collaborating to address issues
Roi shares the story of meeting her new friend, Lily Brechtefeld.Lily was a teenage mum at 18 years. Facing disapproval from her family and community, Lily was working full time as well as studying part time for a law degree and caring for a new baby. The stress and juggling spurred Lily to set up her own NGO to help and support other teenage mums.
“My organisation, ‘Nei Mom’ offers help and support to teen/ young mums. Building networks is very important so we try and connect these young women together to inspire and motivate them. They can learn from each other. For example, there may be areas that some Mums lack but her friends may be experienced in. Nei Mom advocates were once teen mums and therefore their advocacy is driven from real life experience. I hope other women-led NGOs are willing to collaborate with us – because we all want the same outcome – more empowered young women. Getting others to know your work is one way of sending the message out that there is indeed a platform for teen/young moms,” says Lily.
“I’ve been blown away by how much Lily is achieving despite her struggles,” says Roi. “And that’s what makes me so determined and driven to make a difference while I’m here. I meet so many young women, like Lily, who are inspired, driven by the need to address pressing social and environmental issues.
“They are young and active and aware but they have a battle even to be seen and heard. Society in Kiribati traditionally doesn’t value the voice of youth or women.”
Roi is determined to help create spaces for them to develop their skills and have a voice so they can be role models for other young people.
“My goal is to set up an AMAK youth advisory committee with representatives from all over Kiribati, where young women can share their hopes and aspirations, learn about positive solutions for adapting to climate and investing in health and education.
“I love that my job is helping encourage the next generation of leaders in Kiribati. With the vulnerability of their country to climate, they are more determined to learn about sustainable solutions. Their love and connection to their land is so strong. I’m half Kiribati on my Mother’s side so I feel a little of what they intrinsically feel. This land is what they know. The freedom, the closeness to nature….it is home and it is where they feel connected. They won’t be giving up on their people or their country.
What do the elders think?
Another AMAK member, Teamita, expresses the fear of many elders that they will lose their culture if they have to become climate refugees.
“Elders hold very strong traditional and often religious values. Elders see the maintenance of these values as a challenge for youth particularly with climate change. There is a fear that we will lose our culture. Youth need to be able to maintain these traditions. We are teaching them to honour their cultural values and align those with awareness of modern challenges.”
Health champions promote healthy eating
Promoting nutrition and healthy living is a big focus of Roi’s work with youth networks. “Last year, I worked with a women’s organisation where we ran workshops in rural communities teaching about composting and gardening, growing suitable vegetables and how to cook them. Sometimes we’d use song and dance and drama to get the message across that healthy foods equals healthy living.
“One of the great ideas was to select participants in these workshops to become our ‘Health Champions’ and they got to lead the demonstrations at the next workshop. Empowering people to take responsibility is a strong way to spread the message.”
“It is good to be able to attend training and workshops but the most important thing is ACTION. That’s why I am happy to be a health champion, to go out and help people to change their behaviours and lifestyles,” says Health Champion, Francis.
The power of dance and positivity
Roi tells another story about Aberaam who drives from one end of the island to the other (Tarawa is a long skinny island with only one main road) each week so he can teach a Zumba class at Roi’s work space.
“He choreographs it, drives over and pours all this energy into a class – for free! He helps because he believes dance is another outlet for the young people; another way they can feel good and gain self confidence. It’s so much fun and everyone loves it, but I was worried that Aberaam would say he couldn’t come any more because the drive is too far and he wasn’t getting paid. But that wasn’t the case at all. His enthusiasm and generosity for a bigger cause is humbling. In fact he said, “we need to be doing this twice a week!”