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Women On Waves

“Years and years ago when I first started surfing, I recall being in the line-up and one of the boys yelled at me. He completely berated me for being in the ocean to surf, telling me that it was not my place there nor was it a sport for girls. He said I should be at home cooking, doing the laundry and cleaning. I cried.” reminisces Resmah Kalotiti of her early experiences of surfing at Pango village. This experience is not unique or uncommon for girls in Vanuatu breaking into the male dominated surfing scene. Serah John remembers when she started surfing there were no more than 2 girls surfing as well, one them being Resmah. Angisi Mania recalls the boys would taunt her as she paddled for a wave: “they would tell me I was not game enough to catch the wave, especially the bigger waves. They’d tell me to pull off, that I was scared and refused to give my priority”. Claudie Kalotiti says that she is teased at times and would lose confidence in herself getting upset about mean and nasty comments about her desire to surf or her appearance.

Through the adversity, however, these girls have risen through their courage, resilience and sheer determination to set the stage for girls aspiring to surf and enjoy the waves.

Raine opines that more and more girls are now surfing through the influence of Solwota Sista and having more surfboards available to the girls. She had stopped surfing for three years after having trouble accessing a board when she was nine years old. Serah John was able to surf from the age of eight when she would borrow donor boards stored at her grandmother’s house. “All of these boards would be given to the boys but I was lucky they were at my grandmother’s house so I could use them” she recalls. She came to own her very first board in 2014 after Vanuatu won the Melanesian Surfing Cup in Fiji for the fourth year in a row.

Solwota Sista was established by the Vanuatu Surfing Association to encourage more girls to enjoy the ocean waves by creating a safe and inclusive environment for girls and women in the ocean. Angisi Mania started surfing through the Solwota Sista program and has gone on to represent Vanuatu in New Castle, Fiji and Samoa at various international competitions. “This initiative was the best thing the Association could have ever done for the sport and for the wider empowerment of women and girls of the Association’s outreach villages. Our high-performance pool of females for selection to international competitions is the largest it’s ever been, complementing the men’s’ team to realize placements for the country in international surfing competitions.” says Stephanie Mahuk, President of the Vanuatu Surfing Association.

“It hasn’t come without its challenges with us treading on sensitive culturally assigned gender roles. I remember two years ago having identified female talent on one of the villages on Efate and wanting to have her participate in a girl’s program. Her father demanded money to compensate for her absence from the home doing chores. I was appalled. She was not at school, her brothers were prioritized and she spent her days at home.”

Paradoxically, a lot of these girls started surfing through encouragement of their fathers, brothers or male cousins. Raine Kalotiti says she picked up a surfboard inspired by stories from her father who described surfing in his youth with his brothers on broken canoe pieces. Her father’s adventurous and fun recounts of surfing drew her to the ocean to experience what he and her uncles did. Zaridah Taleo started surfing at the age of nine by encouragement of her brother who would take her out with him to surf. Serah John would catch waves with her father on his kayak. Attitudes are changing, especially in Pango village which is the Solwota Sista and Vanuatu Surfing Association base.

The boys are a lot more accommodating of girls in the lineup and the community is more accepting of girls surfing. “It was always a dream of mine to see more girls surfing and it makes me so happy to see so much more girls in the water now ” says Resmah Kalotiti. Resmah tells of how her parents were initially very resistant to the idea of her surfing until she started travelling overseas for surfing competitions. “They came to the realization that surfing had a positive impact on my life, moulding and developing me as a person. They are now very supportive of all their children and grandchildren surfing.” Zaridah Taleo speaks of the challenges of juggling her household duties, school work and surfing, “my parents thought that surfing would take interfere with my concentration on school work.

I was determined to balance it all and prove to them that I could surf and perform at school”. Zaridah successfully secured herself a scholarship to Port Vila International School in 2019 while also winning the Leimalo Surf Championship and representing Vanuatu in the Oceania Surfing Cup in Savaii, Samoa placing third behind New Zealand surfers.

“Surfing is a lot more than a
sport which keeps you active and healthy” says Serah John. “I feel like I’m dancing when I’m on a wave”. The girls describe surfing as fun, calming and therapeutic bringing a sense of community, surfing with family and friends. “It’s my escape from problems at home and the stress of school” says one of the girls “the feeling is indescribable and it cheers me up, dissolves my worries and makes me happy”.

Daring to take up a sport that the boys had a monopoly on was a feat for these girls who all agree that gender equality is an issue in their communities. “I think teaching respect for women and girls starts at home but for a wider community change, it has to start from the power bases in that community which for us is the nakamal meetings with the chiefs and elders which should have the participation of the mamas to raise awareness about issues facing women and girls.” Raine Kalotiti. “the women would get in trouble though if they entered the nakamal and spoke.”

These girls and women are surfers, they are dreamers, they are the authors of their own life’s script challenging cultural barriers and shining the way for other girls who are filled with self-doubt, inhibitions and fear to step out of the shadows. Serah wants to one day open up a surf shop with a board repair bay, Resmah wants to see more girls including her daughter surf, Claudie wants to travel the world and work in a managerial role, Raine wants to become a marine biologist and expand on her artistic work, Angisi wants to complete university and work as a bank executive and Zaridah wants to become a professional surfer and to work to empower women in Vanuatu.