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1. Herstory – Experiences of Women Working in Solomon Islands Prisons

Interview with: Dr. Anouk Ride
Discussing: Women correctional officers and narrative analysis

Anouk Ride and Deborah Cummins


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Listen to Anouk talk about:

  • [3:36]Life in the Solomon Islands
  • [7:31]What is narrative analysis?
  • [8:45]Obstacles to doing participatory research
  • [11:44]The HerStory project
  • [14:16]Stories of women prison officers (the early years)
  • [19:02]Changing the social norms for women in prisons
  • [21:36]Prison work and impact on family life
  • [27:19]Support from male colleagues
Deborah Cummins – [00:03]

When we want to connect with each other, how do we cross the great divide of different worldviews, cultures or religions? How can we work together effectively? Well, first, we need a bridge.

Welcome to Bridging Peoples. In this Bridging Peoples podcast, we explore the human side of aid and development. Join us as we talk with researchers and practitioners about their work around the globe. I’m your host, Deborah Cummins.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like for women working in prisons in the Solomon Islands? No, me neither. But when I came across this topic, I was hooked. I mean, these women are seriously impressive. Today I’m talking with researcher and filmmaker Dr. Anouk Ride. Anouk, in fact, was so impressed these women that she and a colleague decided to make a book and a film about them. The project is called HerStory.

Anouk Ride – [01:08]

“It just goes to show that, you know, women are capable of breaking a lot of barriers. But yet it’s that persistence and that drive that you have within yourself to, to go ahead.”

Deborah Cummins – [01:19]

One of the things that makes HerStory so fascinating is that the women correctional officers themselves did the research. This wasn’t a mainstream project where some people – the researchers – told the stories of other people. Instead, the women shared amongst themselves, with Anouk and her colleague facilitating the process. So we’ll also be chatting about what it takes to really be participatory in our research and to decolonize the research process.

Welcome, Anouk. Such a pleasure to have you here.

Anouk Ride – [01:51]

Thank you Deb

Deborah Cummins – [01:53]

So Anouk, as I understand it, you first started working in the Solomon Islands in 2008. Can you share with us a little bit about your story? What made you go to the Solomon Islands? And why did you decide to stay?

Anouk Ride – [02:07]

Oh, well, it’s a bit of a funny story because my initial plan was to come to Solomon Islands for maybe a year to get some international experience. I’d recently been working in Australia, mostly on sort of social policy and social inclusion issues there. So had this kind of idea in my head that I would come to Solomon Islands, get some regional experiences working for a regional organization, and then move on to something else. And then I sort of got here and started during my PhD fieldwork, and just got really fascinated by this unusual sort of cluster of issues that Solomon Islands has. And I made a lot of friends and sort of ended up getting more and more entrenched in things, and eventually ended up getting married to a Solomon Islander. So since getting the PhD I have more or less been working as a researcher with, as you mentioned, a little bit of communications and film work as well. And yeah, I find it still stimulating and interesting. And I think I’ll be here for some time yet.

Deborah Cummins – [03:12]

Yeah, great. So what’s it like for you living as a researcher in the Solomons? I mean, the Solomons is pretty small, only a bit over 600,000 people, so it must be challenging. I mean, you can’t really disappear into the crowd, like you might be able to in other places. What’s it like for you?

Anouk Ride – [03:36]

It’s challenging sometimes, like it has good and bad sides. Like the good side is, you know, it’s easy to develop networks into different sort of sectors of society, different sectors of the economy and the politics and all that sort of stuff. So, you know, I mean, it’s hard for me to walk down a street in Honiara without, you know, running into someone I know. Which is it is a nice sort of part of life. But then on the other hand, like Solomon Islands, you know, like your, your whole existence is about relationships and trying to avoid conflict with each other as far as possible. Because there’s kind of a cultural norm against, what would I say, face-to-face conflict or you know, like conflict that’s really out in the open? Yeah, like directly challenging people about certain things. So it means that and if that sort of conflict sort of happens between you and another person, you know, it’s a big thing, and it has repercussions in, you know, dealing with various different groups over various different issues. So, the best approach is to try and keep relationships with as many people as possible, right? So it means that when you’re doing research, I’m always like, extra cautious about what might be the controversial issues, or the negative impacts of the research, or even the negative impacts on a person’s reputation. Or on their sort of situation because, if anything like that happens, then it’s going to reflect badly on me and my networks and you know how people see me, and how I sort of just coexist with, you know, a bunch of different people.

So, yeah, you have to kind of like, as a like, we often talk about this with, like local researchers. Like, the international researchers, you know, if anything goes wrong, they can just get on a plane. For me personally, like, I’m going to have to deal with that relationship and how it affects other relationships. Maybe sometimes how it reflects on my own personal security. And on my staff’s personal security, that’s always my chief worry is: am I putting any of the other researchers I’m working with in a situation where they might be subject to, you know, danger or discrimination and all these things. So, it means that you have to really take a sensitive approach. Like, tackle things in a certain way. A lot of sort of sensitive issues I tackle behind closed doors, for example, I don’t really go to the media and you know, make a big public show about it.

And then the second thing is, taking a long term view. I think sometimes, particularly with development workers, there’s a lot of pressure on people to achieve, you know, drastic changes in a short amount of time. Which is unrealistic. Like I think we need to take a long term view of making structural change. And that means, you know, trying to work through difficult people and difficult relationships and difficult institutional arrangements over a period of time to make certain changes that you want to make. Yeah.

Deborah Cummins – [06:49]

Yeah, that’s so true. And I imagine you get quite a unique perspective of that being as you are, sort of, you know, both inside and outside of Solomons Islands’ culture. So, Anouk, I’m wondering if we can change direction a bit here and talk about the research that you do and how you do it. I’m fascinated by how you bring in film and media and comms work into the research process. And you also wrote the book on – or at least a chapter of the book – on narrative analysis. Can you tell us what narrative analysis is?

Anouk Ride – [07:31]

Well, it’s basically just using storytelling that’s like very common, for example, in Solomon culture or Pacific culture, as a way of gathering information and analysis, rather than maybe some what we would say more Western standard social science techniques like surveys and you know, statistics and those kind of things. But the participatory approach is quite demanding in that if you’re going to do it seriously, you have to work closely with the participants in your research from every stage. From, you know, their conception of the idea to the publication. And when when I’ve had the opportunity to do that, it’s been really great. Like, it’s always a great… I think as a researcher, that’s where you learn the most is through participatory projects. Because it really is more of an exchange between you as sort of a formal trained researcher, and the participants as the local researchers, like working together on a particular problem.

Deborah Cummins – [08:32]

Yeah, right. What you’re describing makes a lot of sense, Anouk. So why aren’t we as researchers doing this all the time? Are there any negatives to the process? What are the cons?

Anouk Ride – [08:45]

Yeah, it’s, well, one, one of the cons is time. Like it really takes a long time to do participatory research, because you can’t just power off on your own and complete you know, the methodology or whatever, you know, whatever stage you’re at. And also, you know, there’s there’s an element of training and exchange involved between all of you, that also takes a lot of time. And just building up the trust yeah, to do a project. Because even though people might hear the word ‘partnership’ or the word ‘participation’, for example, they might not actually trust or maybe have any knowledge of what that looks like, in their previous experience.

So you know, working overtime to kind of, you know, get everyone up to the same page and to actually be able to collaborate takes time. And then the second thing too, is, you know… it’s good now, like, there’s a much larger critical mass of researchers that are doing participatory research and thinking about it and analyzing what’s the best way, or what are some good, you know, ways to do it and how you do it and all those things. So that’s great. But then of course, the other side of things, the percentage of participatory research versus standard social science research is small. And maybe it’s a bit marginalized from some of those, you know, high level academic journals and policy institutions. So I think actually, you know, the Linda Smith’s whole idea about decolonizing research, like we have a long way to go in going towards that and actually sort of opening up research to everyone rather than it being sort of white ivory tower.

Deborah Cummins – [10:30]

Absolutely. So, what are your thoughts on more conventional approaches to research?

Anouk Ride – [10:38]

Well, I think, sometimes it’s needed as well. Like, I mean, you can’t do… I mean, unfortunately, in the development sector right now, you can’t do participatory research for everything. Because there’s certain research projects that you do need some quick data on, you know, a baseline or something that has to just use those those quicker techniques. So I think that sometimes pragmatic issues come into play, and some things are more suited to standard sort of social science research. I think when you’re looking at issues to do with power, to do with local governance, that’s where the participatory research can really help you to analyze the problem, and come up with suggested actions. So it depends on what type of research it is.

Deborah Cummins – [11:26]

Yeah, that’s so true. I mean, it would, of course, be fun if we can make everything participatory, but timelines do get in the way. So this leads really nicely into another topic I wanted to speak to you about. Can you tell us about a project you’re recently involved in called HerStory?

Anouk Ride – [11:44]

Yeah, well, HerStory was one of the great joys of my life this year. Because it was a participatory project involving a Women’s Network, of women who are working in correctional facilities or prisons in Solomon Islands. The idea started from another development practitioner who’s been in Solomon Islands for a long time too, called Belle Stanley. She said, look, you know, we’ve got to get some of these women’s stories on the record, because there are women who have been working in prisons for 30 years, and they’re, you know, getting towards retirement age. And, you know, there’s a lot of achievements that actually haven’t been documented. So I said, fine, and I met with the Women’s Network. And we all had this great excitement about just getting the stories written of, you know, these pioneering women in prisons in Solomon Islands. Because it is a very male dominated field. It’s a job in which you have to solve conflicts, you know, almost on a daily basis. And, of course, Solomon Islands had a civil conflict between 1998 and 2003, and has had many other issues, you know, conflict issues since then.

So, a lot of, you know, rich experience of these women who’ve been working in prisons, and around prisons, for many years. So we had a meeting about it and decided we’d do a book and a film, and a little bit of media as well. And, like I was sort of talking about before, at each stage of the process, we just worked on things collaboratively. So like we all decided to, well, the women decided, what questions they wanted to ask each other. And then the women went out and interviewed themselves about their experiences. And then we put those interviews in a big database, and I did an initial thematic analysis. And came back to the group again, and we discussed it some more, and sort of went round and round until, you know, we came up with this book. And the film. Yeah. So as far as we know, it’s like women working in the correctional services sector in the Pacific have done something like this. Really being open and able to share their experience. And their learnings over the years.

Deborah Cummins – [14:03]

Amazing. So what was it like for these women, particularly the ones you called the ‘pioneering women’, who started in the 1980s?

Anouk Ride – [14:16]

For the pioneering women who were the first to go in, what actually happened was in the 1980s, the first women were convicted of crimes and sort of sentenced to prison sentences. And they realized they really didn’t have a place to keep them. So initially, they put them in the homes of the families of police and and prison officers. And from there, women started looking after the female prisoners, and then they sort of went to work at the main correctional facilities when they were established for women. And then, there was the big push by the women’s CSSI Women’s Network to change the legislation so that women had the right to work in the male prison blocks. Um, so when that happened in the early 2000s, that was a big achievement for the women. And in the book they described crying tears of happiness at being able to go into the male prison, like something that they’d always seen and been around and whatever. But actually to be able to work, you know, equal to men and to have that opportunity and that experience.

Deborah Cummins – [15:24]

Oh, really, so they were really fighting for this right to be able to work with the male prisoners?

Anouk Ride – [15:30]

Yeah, because it required legislative and policy change. So they fought for it for a number of years. And another I think, inspiring story for me in the film is the story of Phylistus Fafoi. She was the chair of the Women’s Network. And she was just like: “well, the thing is, you have to follow up. You just keep knocking on the door and following up with your proposal.” And so in large part due to her efforts, these changes have happened, you know, just through persistence. And the strength of will to make these changes.

Deborah Cummins – [16:06]

What an amazing story. So originally, the women prisoners were actually housed in people’s homes. Once this became a bit more formalized, what happened? How did this work? Were the women housed in the same prison as the men?

Anouk Ride – [16:25]

So then after that, they had a few cells at the end of the men’s block for the women. And that was a funny experience for those women, correctional officers working at that time, because they had to, of course, pass the male blocks to get to the female blocks. And, you know, there were quite dangerous men in there and they sort of tried to… put their hands out of the bars and touch the female officers that they went past. And all this sort of stuff went on. So that was during that time, and then they built a separate facility, a separate house – within the same grounds, but a separate house – for the female prisoners. So after that, conditions working there became a bit better. And then finally, yeah, the women were allowed to work in the female and the male blocks in the prisons.

Deborah Cummins – [17:16]

And what was it like for them? I mean, it’s a pretty risky environment. Did any of the women speak about feeling afraid on the job?

Anouk Ride – [17:26]

Well, different women have different experiences, of course. I don’t want to over-generalize. Some do mention that they were initially afraid, or worried about going to work in a prison. Particularly in the 1980s because there are a couple of incidents in the 1980s where the prisoners broke out of the prison. And of course, that puts you in, you know, quite a high security risk if you’re working during that time. And also in ‘the tensions’, because the the militants overtook the prison in ‘the tensions’, in the conflict. So you know, there were quite scary experiences that they faced. Then on the other hand, you know, like a lot of women talk about members of their family saying, “what are you doing working in the prison? You know, aren’t you afraid to work there? You know, like, you’re not a strong man. So how are you going to deal with the prisoners?” And then the women are coming back with various responses, like, you know, “I can do this work too. You know, it’s not necessarily about fighting. It’s about other things like negotiating and, you know, talking to the prisoners and dealing with some of the issues.” So, the women, the pioneering women in the HerStory book and film kind of, were really changing the social norms of their own families and their friends, by educating them about what actually is the role of a good correctional officer. And and maybe breaking down some stereotypes people have about how you work in the prison.

Deborah Cummins – [18:56]

Were they also judged for choosing this career path?

Anouk Ride – [19:02]

Yeah, in some cases, yes. Like, some of the women in the book talk about people more or less saying that they were, you know, not the right sort of women because they’re doing this kind of work. Because in some of the provinces in Solomon Islands, there are kind of norms about women not socializing with other men outside their family networks. So when you go into a prison, you’re socializing with all sorts of men, you know, like your other correctional officers, you know, the prisoners, etc, etc. So for some women that’s breaking a strong norm just to go into the prison and work. And then the other big controversy was trousers. Like, that women wore trousers. As correctional officers that was a special thing at one time, and it still is in in some in some senses. The fact that they had a men’s uniform, the fact that they worked with men, these are breaking some of gender norms for some of the women in the book.

Deborah Cummins – [20:01]

God so impressive. Do you think that these women realize just how incredibly impressive they are? Did you get a sense of pride from them when they were telling their stories?

Anouk Ride – [20:15]

I think that was one of the positive impacts of the book and the film, was it really… I mean, certain people knew about it already. They had received, like, some officers had received certain awards. And, you know, it’s sort of widely known that, you know, women in the correctional services have gone further and faster than, for example, women in the police force in Solomon Islands. And they’d also previously, the Solomon’s women had previously started a network of women across the Pacific who work in corrections. So they have been seen as leaders, you know, in their sector for some time. But I think the book and the film really just opened up, you know, other people’s minds and the general public’s minds as to how much progress the CSSI Women’s Network has made. And what actually, you know, these women have been through and experienced, and actually triumphed over the years.

Deborah Cummins – [21:11]

Yeah, wow. So these are impressive, powerful women and they’ve got considerable authority in their working life. But they’re also ordinary women, right? They’re wives, they’re mothers, they’re daughters. So did any of the women talk about how their work translated into their home lives? What was that aspect like for them?

Anouk Ride – [21:36]

Some did. Like, particularly some of the early ones, I think most of the early ones, the first wave I would say, of female correctional officers mentioned the support of their husbands and family. And maybe without that support, it wouldn’t have been possible. One of the big achievements of the Women’s Network too, was to get maternity leave. So prisons were somewhat behind in giving women maternity leave, which meant that many of the earlier recruits actually worked through their pregnancies pretty much. And you know, if the kids are sick and stuff, you know, you’re in a really difficult position because there’s maybe one or two staff, for example, looking after the female unit. And if you’re off, then you know, what are you going to do? You need to you need to be there. So a great pressure and responsibility on these women to come to work, despite childcare and another sort of commitments. And then a few mentioned that, you know, the type of work that they did at prisons, or correctional facilities had meant that they had arguments with their partners and their husbands. Sometimes even violent arguments at home about it. So you know, there was a spectrum of different experiences from women who didn’t have supportive their partner at the time, and sometimes the extended family. You know, like the in-laws and so forth. And then others who actually mentioned strong support from their family.

Deborah Cummins – [23:06]

Did any of the women actually speak about how they saw the situation of the women prisoners?

Anouk Ride – [23:14]

Yes. In the film, there’s a moving story about Catherine Nalakia, who was on duty when one of the female prisoners was pregnant and sick. And she called for a nurse to come. And you know, this woman was in a really difficult position and the pregnant woman and Mrs. Nalakia had to make some really critical choices at the time. So there was that… particularly with the female prisoners, there was that sense of, you know, having a common understanding of what their issues were, and what they might be facing. Sort of dealing with these issues, women to women, to solve some of these tricky issues that came up.

Deborah Cummins – [24:01]

Yeah right, and Anouk, so what are some of your favorite stories? What are the stories that stick in your mind?

Anouk Ride – [24:10]

I think a lot of the stories that stick in my mind are just the persistence of women in getting into the service, and then and then serving, you know, as correctional officers and managers and so forth over the years. Like, for example, one of the stories in the book was about a woman growing up in a rural area. And one of their relatives had come to their house to say to all the local boys, “oh, look, they’re taking in recruits here for the local prison.” And she sort of watched this going on, and you know, it was obvious no one was going to ask her to do it. So she had to go and ask her relative: is it okay if I apply too? You know, how do I apply? And, you know, at the time that was happening, like in the 1980s, that was a huge step for a young woman to take. To actually have that interest and drive to pursue an application for this kind of work. And I think there’s stories like that throughout the book. So it’s an inspiring book for me. Like it just goes to show that, you know, women are capable of breaking a lot of barriers. But it’s that persistence and that drive that you have within yourself to, to go ahead.

Deborah Cummins – [25:27]

Absolutely. So these stories, they begin from the 1980s. So there must have been quite a bit of change over the years. Did you notice much difference between the experiences of the younger, and the older women?

Anouk Ride – [25:46]

Yeah, well, obviously the younger women have much better working conditions these days. But on the other hand, what’s funny to me is that we had a question in the book about, you know, when you were starting doing this work, what were the comments from your friends and family? And the same objections that people raised to women being in the service in the 1980s, friends and family still raise today. So some of the gender norms haven’t shifted that much. Particularly, you know, in the rural areas outside of urban areas. And then the other thing too, is maybe the domestic violence issue hasn’t reduced certainly. It’s probably increased a bit so…

Deborah Cummins – [26:31]

The domestic violence issue for the women themselves, women correctional officers having arguments back home?

Anouk Ride – [26:40]

Just the level of it in society in general. And also like, disputes between partners about whether women should be doing you know, working at night, for example, or working with other men. So that issue is still a live issue even for the younger recruits. Yeah, so in what’s remarkable about the CSSI story is the institution has made remarkable changes. The women themselves have made remarkable changes. But maybe society in general has not changed that much since they started serving.

Deborah Cummins – [27:12]

Yeah. Did the women speak about the perceptions of their male colleagues?

Anouk Ride – [27:19]

Yes. So, a lot of women mentioned that their mentors were men. And that, you know, they had support from different people over the lifetime of their work to get them where they are now. Particularly those that have risen in the ranks. And then others also mentioned, you know, problems with teams, like some teams not being that supportive of women and stuff. So, there was different kind of experiences there. But in general, we had this, we looked specifically at like, what are the attitudes of managers and co workers, then versus now? And we found that the attitudes had really changed over time. And that women, you know, were recruited later, were more likely to say that their management was supportive and their co workers were supportive. So I think that reflects that there’s been a bit of an institutional change there, which is positive.

Deborah Cummins – [28:11]

Anouk, it’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you and learning more about your work. And hearing about this incredibly impressive group of women. Thank you so much for giving your time and for sharing about this project HerStory.

Anouk Ride – [28:28]

My pleasure.

Deborah Cummins – [28:30]

If you’d like to learn more about Anouk Ride’s work, visit her website at https://anoukride.com. If you enjoyed listening to this episode and think others might too, please do share amongst your networks. Next month I’ll be talking with husband and wife team David and Maxine Hicks. We’ll be chatting about their experiences working in Timor-Leste since the mid 1960s, including David’s experiences as an electoral observer during the bloody vote for independence in 1999.

David Hicks – [29:05]

“He didn’t bother to introduce himself if I remember correctly. And then as we started off talking, “what happens if what happens if”, he said “well, if they vote for independence, then” and I quote him as best I can, “it’s back to square one. There will be a sweeping of this country. There will be a sweeping of this country.”

Deborah Cummins – [29:31]

I’m your host Deborah Cummins. Thanks for joining me. This is a Bridging Peoples podcast.

Dr Anouk Ride is a researcher, film producer and award-winning non-fiction writer (author of The Grand Experiment, Hachette Livre and co-editor of Community Resilience in Natural Disasters, Macmillan) working in the Pacific Islands. For the past decade, she has conducted research and multimedia productions to unearth new approaches to aid, conflict, disasters and social change. Her interests focus around participatory research methods and research projects that enable local people to analyse topics of interest and identify their own solutions to conflict, gender inequality and social exclusion.

She has completed a Master of Arts (International Relations, Australian National University) and a PhD in peace and conflict studies (Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland). Her Phd research on conflict, communication and participatory research methods earned her the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Research Higher Degree Theses 2014. Her international experience also includes working for two international magazines and several organisations including the Australian Council of Social Service, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, ABC International, Save the Children, Oxfam, United Nations Development Programme, World Bank, and government departments and ministries in Australia and the Pacific. Her work has been profiled in international media including newspapers The Guardian (UK), The Australian and The Age (Australia) and on radio including BBC UK and ABC (Australia).

Check out some of her work here: https://anoukride.com