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Understanding health from a Pasifika perspective

Dr Litea Meo-Sewabu on her graduation day, with her husband Koli Sewabu, who also works at Massey University.

"Tu ga na inima ka luvu na waga” literally means “the bail is in the boat, yet the boat sinks”. It is with this phrase in mind that Dr Litea Meo-Sewabu chose to explore the understanding of health and wellbeing among indigenous Fijian women.

Dr Meo-Sewabu, who is the coordinator of the Pacific Research and Policy Centre at Massey University, graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy in Social Policy from the College of Health yesterday.

Her thesis uncovered the unique factors that Marama iTaukei, or indigenous Fijian women, perceive as being healthy. These included: Dau veiqaravi, being of service; Taucoko ni qaravi itavi, completion and completeness of tasks; Na veiwekani, maintaining harmony in relationships; Kena I raira, outward reflection or physical appearance; and Bula vakayalo, spirituality.

Dr Meo-Sewabu says current health frameworks need to take these cultural determinants into account.

“Exploring the intricate and delicate weaving of Fijian knowledge and Western philosophies may be the future to improving health and wellbeing for Fijian women.”

She says understanding health and wellbeing from a cultural perspective allows the health sector to plan and implement strategies that work for the population, rather than impose something that has worked in other parts of the world. “The strategy will be unique and appropriate for that particular community, which can only improve day-to-day living and takes into consideration strategic gender needs within that community.

The study was conducted in Fiji and New Zealand, which Dr Meo-Sewabu says allowed her to explore how perceptions and experiences of health and wellbeing have evolved as Fijian women have migrated to New Zealand.

The mother of four, originally from Fiji, has lived in New Zealand for the last 10 years. She grew up on the island nation, but finished her college years in Nashville, Tennessee, completing a Bachelor of Science in Tennessee, followed by a Master of Public Health from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

It was when she returned to Fiji after living in America that she realised, despite agencies having good intentions, health disparities and inequalities continued to grow. “I was working at Fiji’s Ministry of Health, and the Fiji School of Medicine. I thought maybe we don’t understand health from the perspective of the people we are serving, so it has always been an important issue for me.

“I also chose to research women as they are often the change agents within families. So my study was about finding the lay understanding of health and wellbeing from an Indigenous Fijian women’s perspective. Because I now live in Aotearoa, it was also important for me to look at also exploring understanding within a transnational Fijian community here in New Zealand.”

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