oct 2018 surf, empowerment, vanuatu

The third part of our series we will hear from the co-founders of Solwota Sista, Stephanie Mahuk Sam Suendermann.

Stephanie Mahuk is a Senior Associate, Geoffrey Gee & Partners Law Firm in Vanuatu and Sam Suendermann is a professional surfer and heads the women's development program for Solwota sista. 

    Stephanie Mauk (left in the lime green with her mother Marie Estelle Mahuk) &
                                              Sam Suendermann (right)

1. Can you share with the audience some background about your organization? (mission, goals, etc.)

STEF- Solwota sista was conceived from the Vanuatu Surfing Association’s vision to encourage and promote the sport of surf amongst girls and women in Vanuatu communities who were absent from the lineup. Solwota sista became a catalyst to inspire social change and achieve gender equality while providing a safe and inclusive space for girls and women to express themselves.

SAM- I started up Solwota Sista with a group of young passionate Ni-Vanuatu surfer girls. They had been wanting to establish a platform that focussed on the encouragement and development of female surfing in Vanuatu. As the first generation of female surfers, they wanted to make it easier for the younger girls to access surfing, and to challenge the expectations and barriers that they had experienced. It was a really organic process, we invited all of the girls and young women who were interested in surfing, or already surfed, and had a massive brainstorm session to determine what our guiding principles would be. We had around 20 girls aging in range from 10 to 25 who all gave their input on the direction of Solwota Sista.

The mission of Solwota Sista is to help the women and girls of Vanuatu experience and access surfing, surf and nonsurf related skill development opportunities and to inspire strength and confidence to all women and girls who participate in surfing. Our vision is to create a safe and inclusive community of women and girls around Vanuatu who have a special connection to the ocean and each other through surfing and are committed to gender equality and safeguarding the environment. We keep the following key points in mind: values, equality, respect, helping hands, communication, and working together. 


2. Each of your organizations targets a specific need/gap you saw in a local community and/or the surf community in your respective locations. What were some of these needs/gaps, and what are the steps you took to address this/these gap(s)?

STEF-Gender disparities particularly the cultural view of a girl or women's role as well as the access to opportunities based on these views were vivid in the surfing scene. To the extent the extent that the VSA felt it wholly unacceptable and sought to apply to the Australian government-funded volunteer program seeking out a female surfing development officer. Samantha was placed in this challenging role and nurtured the sport amongst girls & women simultaneously dissolving the gender divide in the sport and promoting girls and women's equal rights.

SAM- My role as women’s surf development officer was a strategy that the Vanuatu Surfing Association took to prioritize female participation in surfing, which was a gap that they had identified. I worked with the board and a small leadership group of young male and female surfers to identify needs/gaps and strategies to address these. We recognized that there was a need to create a safe female friendly supportive space to foster female surfing. This was a motivating factor behind the creation of Solwota Sista. In terms of equipment, we trialed the pink nose initiative- which aimed to put surfboards painted pink in the hands of the girls. However we found that it was extremely hard to monitor, the younger boys still didn’t respect the girls. The younger boys or other male family members would take the boards off of them. As the boards were given out freely they also were often returned in damaged conditions. We find that what works best now is to work with one of our male leaders who are responsible for looking after the boards, and is respected and looked up to by the younger boys who will now refrain from taking boards from the girls. The girls feel comfortable approaching his board shed and will rent out a board to use. Instead of using boards free of charge they need to do a five-minute beach clean up to earn their board. As Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands we also make it a priority to extend our work to islands and communities outside Pango Village, which is where we are based near the capital city. Working in some of these communities is even more challenging because tradition and kastom are extremely strong and women and girls face significant barriers to accessing surfing. Again we have recognized the need to identify a group of leaders on the ground and to work with them closely to stress the importance of women and girls inclusion.

3. For you personally, what was the primary motivation to get involved with this cause/issue, and using surfing as part of the strategy to create change? What aspects of your own upbringing, sporting or cultural experiences lead you to this?

STEF- I had an Olympic athlete mother who broke the mold for women in high-performance sport in Vanuatu. Not only in athletics but sports in general. She is still the most highly decorated and highest achieving female in sports in this country. I watched in awe as she trained tirelessly for competitions juggling that with raising a young family, working and running the family business. She was for me, Superwoman. We lived in Port Moresby, PNG which was and still is not safe for girls and women. My mother regardless of security threats ventured to the stadium 6 days a week to train. I watched her floor men in meetings as she advocated for herself as an athlete and without hesitation (or a filter) spoke her mind about issues or topics. She was a force to be reckoned with on and off the track. I was fortunate to have her as a role model. Her sisters were equally impressive and influential for me. I never warmed to Athletics as a sport for myself but took to surfing and joined the VSA which had an agenda that supported my passion for the sport and my desire to be part of a movement that changed the landscape of the perception and expectation of girls/women in Vanuatu. What better vehicle to bring about this change than sports.

SAM- From a young age surfing has given me so many opportunities. I didn’t really enjoy school and was lucky enough to attend a surf focused education program that gave me practical industry experience during my last years of school. This also gave me the chance to work in the surf and community development space and from a young age, I was able to immerse myself in this field, traveling around Australia and the world. I was fortunate enough to meet the Vanuatu surfing team while at a Pacific region surfing competition in Samoa. From that moment I really connected with them and we began to implement female surfing programs together during my university break. All of us could relate to surfing and how it had made such a positive impact on our lives. Basically, we wanted to give back to surfing what it had given us and to capitalize on the uniqueness of it by reaching out to the next generation of women, girls, and youth in Vanuatu.


4. As an organization, what are some of the challenges you are facing at the moment? What are some of the strategies you are using to help overcome these challenges?

STEF- Solwota sista faces battles in community acceptance of surfing as a sport suitable for girls and women. The challenge is ensuring that after outreach programs are completed, the momentum continues and girls & women are not deprived to access of a surfboard or access to the surf.

We include as many surfer boys and men as we can in our programs to foster acceptance in the community and run competitions inclusive of female categories. We also revisit these communities to keep a pulse on how the community applied our training and gender equality awareness talks to encouraging and growing surfing.

SAM- The biggest challenge is the cultural perception and expectations of women and girls and male entitlement. We try to do a lot of advocacy work to promote surfing within the local communities. We focus on the promotion of surfing in a positive light, including the opportunities that it can bring for travel, education, work and personal development of our groms. We also align with environmental and social issues and use our organization to push for much-needed change in these areas. We want to be seen as a leader and role model in our communities.

5. This will be a three-part question. I am sure you all are aware of this; on Thursday, September 6th the World Surfing League (WSL) announced equal prize money would be awarded to both male and female surfers.

a. When you first heard what were some of your reactions? Relieved a great injustice in the sport had been corrected.

SAM- As a female surfer who used to compete I was stoked to hear that equal prize money towards male and female surfers would be awarded! Those of us who have been in this position know that it was very long overdue! But I was also extremely proud of professional surfing as in reality compared to a large number of other sports surfing is very progressive regarding gender equity. I am also extremely grateful to those behind the scenes who have pushed for this for so long so that the next generation of professional female surfers can reap the rewards. However, I think there is still serious inequalities with respect to non-shortboard disciplines (for example longboard, body board, and kneeboard) that need to be addressed.

b. Do you think this will have any impact on your organization?

STEF- The VSA has always had equal prize money, rewards and opportunities for girls and women. For example, we have run an international level surfing contest, the Leimalo Surf Festival for the last two years. The Leimao Fest had equal prize money and division entry allocations for men and women and longboard and shortboard. The WSL’s announcement, while long overdue reinforced that in Vanuatu we are more progressive and inclusive than the governing international professional surfing body.

c. What areas still need to be addressed in terms of equity in surfing?

STEF- Level the playing field. If it's a big wave Comp, let the girls surf. If it's an aerial Comp, let the girls surf that too. Suppression or restriction on the grounds of a primitive perception of girls as being precious or meek has no place in modern society or surfing.

SAM- Surfing bodies are being made to address gender inequality in the sport. Pressure from a number of stakeholders ensures that change has to be met. A great concern, however, is the increasing disparity of wealth and resources between countries and surfers. Countries like Australia can spend millions of dollars on high-end training facilities, coaches and athlete support. Affluent and professional surfers can access these facilities, which now includes wave pools. Wave pools and equipment like specialized trampolines and skate facilities means that surfers can now focus on the development, repetition, and refinement of surf skills which previously would have taken years to perfect. Now it is a matter of months. Countries without the finances and resources to create these training opportunities are going to be significantly disadvantaged. Countries like Vanuatu have trouble accessing quality surfboards and equipment, let alone the latest technological innovations. The playing field is not going to be even and this will be evident in the increasing gap of surfing performance.

Stef and Sam training with Ni-Vanuatu surfer girls

6. Tokyo 2020 is a big year, with surfing making its debut at the Olympics. Have you seen an increase in interest in surfing NGOs as a response to Olympic inclusion? (e.g., in people wanting to learn how to surf, more interest from volunteers, more support from donors, industry, corporations).

STEF- We are seeing more support from donors and definitely a surge in interest amongst the younger generation to surf or improve their surfing.

SAM- Opportunities for funding are opening up, such as through our National Olympic Committee. However, access to this funding is still not as accessible or user-friendly as one would like. Another interesting spike is in the interest and investment of the parents of surfers. Before surfing was not as accepted by parents and family members and sat underneath other sports and activities. However since the announcement of surfing’s inclusion into the Olympics parents are becoming more invested in their child’s participation of surfing. This is definitely an added bonus as it is changing community perceptions of surfing, now there is an Olympic pathway to aspire to and parents are really encouraging of this.

7. Finally, based on your experiences, what do you see as the biggest challenges for women trying to create social and community change via surfing NGOs? And why is it important for women to be involved in leading such initiatives? Do you feel women bring something different to this type of work?

STEF- Women driving change for a better future for other women is as authentic and genuine as a cause can come. Only women can put a voice and a face to the oppression and suffering they experience. The biggest challenge that women can face is from other women who are reluctant for change and rally behind men to silence and stop this movement. I have seen women agree they are entitled to equal treatment, but raise their hands and shout hallelujah when the pastor preaches about the inferiority of women who must be subservient to their husbands and men.




A: responses

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