A big woman of the Pacific heads home to her final resting place

Ginny Stein
A big woman of the Pacific heads home to her final resting place Dorosday Kenneth Watson during a service for the launch of her campaign for election to Vanuatu’s parliament, in Port Vila, Oct. 2, 2022.
Ginny Stein/BenarNews

UPDATED at 12:18 p.m. ET on 2023-12-12

It’s a journey in reverse to the one Dorosday Kenneth Watson took more than 50 years ago as a young girl on the verge of becoming a teenager and as Vanuatu, then a colony under joint British-French rule, was moving towards independence.

Her departure from Uripiv, a small island in a Pacific nation of dozens of islands stretched over more than a thousand kilometers, was the result of acceptance into Vanuatu’s most prestigious school.

She was one of 12 small children lined up on a beach, carrying the expectations of their parents, each waiting to jump into a small banana boat to cross the water to the nearby island of Malekula and then by ferry to the main island of Efate, one hundred nautical miles south.

They were leaving an island home without electricity or the telephone. Mobile phone coverage was decades away. And so too, the internet.

Her body has now been returned to Uripiv to be buried alongside her ancestors. 

Dorosday Kenneth Watson, a trail blazer for women in a deeply patriarchal society, died suddenly last weekend, aged 59. She was one of the Pacific island country’s top civil servants, a champion for women and a mentor and collaborator with many, including Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s former foreign minister and its current minister for climate change adaptation.

“You were a pillar of strength and courage for so many. This loss is a big one for this nation,” said Relvie Poilapa, a community development worker. 

“Women from all over Vanuatu will miss you greatly,” she said.

Dorosday Kenneth Watson (center) stands with Sethy Reganvanu in front of an election banner during the launch of her parliamentary election campaign, in Port Vila, Vanuatu, Oct. 2, 2022. [Ginny Stein/BenarNews]

In a country where family connections run deep, it was Regenvanu’s parents who were Kenneth Watson’s family during her time as a boarder at school in Port Vila, the country’s capital.

“We were her only family in Vila. We were her next door neighbors in Uripiv,” said Sethy Regenvanu, a former deputy prime minister of Vanuatu. 

“She was a girl I was proud of. She epitomized my belief in the potential of women in this society we are yet to achieve,” he said. 

In her early 20s, Kenneth Watson became the first woman in Vanuatu to head a government department.

She was studying for an advanced degree in marine resource management in the United Kingdom when she was called back to serve as director of the Department of Fisheries, not long after Vanuatu achieved independence in 1980.

It was during her time in the U.K. that another important event occurred – she finally learned the origins of her name. Her father had named her after the singer and actress Doris Day. He had heard Day sing when he was in Australia as a guest of missionaries who had come to Malekula.

After heading the fisheries department, Kenneth Watson served for many years as director of the agriculture and rural development department. 

“I wanted to go into a field that very few women were taking,” she said in a 2021 interview with the writer of this obituary.

“I couldn’t get it out of my mind why it was different for women and men. So, yes I wanted to challenge them.”

The decision reflected many childhood discussions with her father about how women were treated differently in Vanuatu and the importance of education, she said.

Kenneth Watson came from a family of four sisters and two brothers. Their father, Terrina Kenneth, was steeped in kastom – the traditional cultural values in Vanuatu – and became a chief, but when missionaries arrived in Malekula, he adopted Christianity.

He believed that all of his children, not just the boys, should gain an education.

“I remember him talking with my uncles who were arguing with him about girls getting an education,” Kenneth Watson said. “They were saying he would have to work extra hard to pay for your daughters to go to school. And once they finished school, they get a job and they leave you.”

Mourners carry Dorosday Kenneth Watson’s coffin in Port Vila, in this undated photo provided by Vanuatu’s Ministry of Justice. [Handout/Vanuatu Ministry of Justice]

Over several decades in the public service, Kenneth Watson had walked a delicate line in pursuing her pro-women agenda, knowing that she was up against patriarchal opponents.

In 2009, she became director of the women’s affairs department and in 2012 was awarded the Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite by France for her work in championing women’s rights. 

When Kenneth Watson rose to director-general of Vanuatu’s Ministry of Justice early this decade, she pushed for women’s issues to be taken out of the silo and addressed by all government departments.

“I personally wish to acknowledge her contributions to the public service and to the country, and most importantly her leadership on issues affecting and empowering women,” former Deputy Prime Minister Jotham Napat told BenarNews. 

Jennifer Kalpokas Doan, the executive director of Balance of Power, an initiative aimed at shifting attitudes in the Pacific that prevent women becoming leaders, is one of the many women in Vanuatu who held her as a role model.

“Anytime she came into the office, she broke bread with us and we prayed first before we started our discussions. This is who she was. A great woman of faith first, and then she was the amazing Dorosday Kenneth,” Kalpokas Doan said.

Yasmine Bjornum is the founder of Sista, a women-dedicated platform.

“Dorosday was a person who actually cared about nation-building. She understood that gender equality was integral to build up Vanuatu, and she was unapologetic about it,” Bjornum said.

Kenneth Watson was dismissed from her justice ministry position in 2021 after challenging a Council of Ministers’ decision to replace it with a Ministry of Fisheries, Ocean and Maritime Affairs. 

She successfully sued for wrongful termination and the justice ministry remains intact.

“I looked at them and said: how can I ignore something that is unlawful, it is my duty,” she said.

Australia’s former High Commissioner to Vanuatu, Jenny Da Rin, posted on social media when she heard about Kenneth Watson’s death.

“I was privileged to work with Dorosday Kenneth and I mourn her passing with her family, colleagues and the people of Uripiv and Vanuatu,” Da Rin said. “She will be greatly missed but we have all learned from her example and walk in her footsteps.”

After her bruising departure from the civil service, Kenneth Watson demonstrated her mettle by seeking to enter politics. 

She was a candidate in the 2022 snap election and had the support of the Regenvanu family who were keen to see a woman elected to the all-male parliament.

The drought was broken by another woman, Gloria King, who was the first woman elected to Vanuatu’s parliament in 14 years.

Ralph Regenvanu, speaking at the time, said the snap election did not give Kenneth Watson enough time to build support.

It was not her time. And now her time has run out, but her legacy remains.

Ginny Stein is the managing editor for Southeast Asia for Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news service affiliated with BenarNews. She lived in Vanuatu from 2019 to 2023 and worked alongside Dorosday Kenneth Watson as a media development adviser.

This article has been updated to include comments from Yasmine Bjornum and Jennifer Kalpokas Doan.


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