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Navigating Identities in Vanuatu

Peace Corps’ Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

Volunteers in Vanuatu serve in under-resourced, rural, tropical island environments that are typically accessed by small boats, open-air trucks, or walking on uneven jungle paths; and there are no services available for people with disabilities. Because of this, Vanuatu is not able to accommodate Volunteers with physical disabilities at this time.

For Volunteers with neurodiversity, staff are committed to exploring creative and innovative ways to support reasonable accommodations for Volunteer success.

Gender role considerations

Gender roles in Vanuatu villages are very strongly defined. Women generally have traditional responsibilities that center the home. These include caring for children, cleaning the home, and working long hours to prepare food from scratch.

Women, especially younger women, will find the behavioral norms and expectations stricter than they are used to in the U.S. Communities have little experience with women, particularly younger women, who have professional roles or live independently of their families. Women and Volunteers who present as women may be expected spend more time with their host families than men and Volunteers who present as men and may need to work harder than men Volunteers to gain professional respect in their workplace.

Men Volunteers will have more opportunities to socialize outside the home than women Volunteers and will not need to consider the same safety and security implications of being outside their home after dark. Women Volunteers have appreciated allyship from men Volunteers in navigating the traditional gender norms in Vanuatu.

Although men are the most visible community leaders, women also hold a lot of power in the communities ‘behind the scenes.’ While it may be challenging at times, women will enjoy success by aligning themselves with the women’s groups in villages and working within the gender defined system to influence change.

Women Volunteers may find themselves the subject of unwanted attention and/or sexual harassment in their community. Peace Corps staff will provide training and support to women Volunteers to develop culturally appropriate and effective strategies to navigate and mitigate these challenges.

LGBTQI+ considerations

Although identifying as LGBTQI+ is not illegal in Vanuatu, it is considered culturally taboo, due in part to strong religious beliefs. There is extremely limited understanding of expressions of gender identity other than cisgender.

Volunteers will need to be mindful of cultural norms and use their judgement to determine the best way to approach the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity in their communities. Most LBGTQI+ Volunteers have chosen not to explicitly share their sexual orientation with their community members. Despite this challenge, LGBTQI+ Volunteers have served successfully in Vanuatu with support from staff, peer groups, and trusted cultural guides.

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

Ni-Vanuatu have limited exposure to American culture and largely expect all U.S. citizens to be White. Therefore, Volunteers who do not present as White may be asked where they are ‘actually from’ or if they are ‘really’ American. These microaggressions may be exhausting and challenging to cope with on a repeated basis. Many Volunteers have been able to turn these encounters into learning experiences, share perspectives on American diversity and values, and deepen local community members’ understanding of Americans.

Broadly speaking, Asian Americans will be assumed to be Chinese, and may experience prejudiced attitudes towards Chinese nationals which are prevalent in Vanuatu communities. Because of this, Asian American Volunteers may have a more difficult time integrating into their communities than Volunteers of other racial/ethnic backgrounds and will be supported by allyship from other Volunteers who do not have the same experience.

Regardless of one’s skin color, ni-Vanuatu are curious about ‘outsiders’ and staring is not considered to be rude. Post staff will provide Volunteers with appropriate ways to engage and respond.

Age considerations

Elders in ni-Vanuatu communities are considered leaders and are often given great respect, though this can be challenging for Volunteers as they often feel like novices in their new environments.

“As I was an ‘olfala’ (I was 62 when I started my service), people were protective and attentive to physical demands made of me, but underestimated my strength and vitality.”

Living conditions in Vanuatu are basic, and medical services are not readily available in villages. Older Volunteers need to be prepared to take special health precautions to ensure a healthy completion of service.

Religious considerations

Christianity has been an integral part of ni-Vanuatu culture since Christian missionaries first arrived in Vanuatu more than 100 years ago; and the Church pays an important role in community life. Vanuatu’s major Christian churches include Assemblies of God, Anglican, Seventh-day Adventist, Presbyterian, Mormon, and Catholic.

Whatever one’s religious beliefs may be, it is essential that Volunteers understand and respect the importance that Christianity and the Church holds in the lives of ni-Vanuatu. Participation in church activities is a key entry point into community integration. Volunteers who show respect for local beliefs are more likely to be accepted into the homes and lives of the members of their new community.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

Couples may face pressure to conform with traditional gender roles in-country. Ni-Vanuatu may find American relationship dynamics to be a significant cultural difference, for example, in cases where the man is seen to be doing the ‘traditional’ women’s roles of cooking or cleaning. Couples may want to think about how pressures to conform to local culture may be challenging to men and women in very different ways. It will be important for couples to consider how one’s partner or opposite sex is being affected by traditional or different cultural norms. Discuss what, if any, aspects of the relationship should be adjusted and can help reduce stress for everyone.

“When my wife and I served in Vanuatu, my wife’s male colleagues would have a question for her but would ask it of me instead.  I always had to let them know it was OK to talk to her directly and that even though I was her husband, I didn’t need to be in the loop.”

Couples who are not married may be assumed to be married or asked about their plans to marry or plan to have children.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

Peace Corps Vanuatu has a staff-led Equity Council that works to intentionally foster a more inclusive and equitable organizational culture within Peace Corps. The taskforce collaborates with and seeks input from Volunteers on various ICDEIA efforts from working to make training and programming more effective and appropriate to co-creating ideas to strengthen inclusion and belonging for Volunteers, staff, and host country partners.

Staff also periodically meet with host country human rights groups and advocates to better understand the ICDEIA climate in country and invite representatives from local groups to meet with trainees and Volunteers during certain training and programming events.