When Papamoa teacher Bridget Isichei searched for a gritty real life experience teaching overseas, she had no idea it would lead her to being a campaigner for vulnerable women in a poverty-stricken shantytown in a remote part of Vanuatu, which she desribes as "an island paradise slowly being devoured by the ocean, where women had no status despite being the backbone of their communities".

Now back in New Zealand, where she lives with her partner, one-year-old boy and three-year-old girl, the 38-year-old early childhood teacher has written a book about her experiences, Road No Good, which was launched last night in the Bay at Books A Plenty.

The book is the story of how Bridget helped transform the women from remote villages on the island of Santo to create a future for their children.

"I really had no idea what I was in for when I accepted a two-year volunteer post to train women to be preschool teachers in a remote part of Vanuatu."

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Bridget soon discovered that in the local village hierarchy, women were ranked at the bottom of their society "while men were seen as having God-given rights".

Bridget went to Vanuatu in 2007 to work with a group of preschool teachers, many of whom had never been to secondary school, to enrol in a certificate course and become educated. When she tried to enrol the women she was working with in a correspondence teaching course, she could have never predicted the fierce opposition her plan would face from every corner of the community.

"The outcry was uproarious; women should know their place - and know better than to try to improve themselves."

She was based in a town called Luganville, where she said people were still practising black magic.

"In Vanuatu black magic is still a very real and current part of life. It is a fundamental part of the way society works. It can include anything from love spells that might make someone fall in love with you, to a spell that makes you shapeshift into someone else. It's often used for healing, but can be used by thieves to break in to someone's house. Spells can also be cast to keep people from entering a space. Magic often involves a 'clever' or Magic Man, leaves and stones.

"Many communities in Vanuatu have became Christian through the influences of missionaries, and those communities try not to practise black magic, although the Christian beliefs have somewhat mixed in with the traditional beliefs in some ways. It's a very strong part of traditional culture though, and people tend to attribute unexplained events to it whether Christian or not."

Women were still wearing fashions from missionary days, a traditional English style frock with puffy sleeves, but made from floral prints.

Bridget was shocked to learn that women in the town were ranked "lower than pigs".

"A wife in Vanuatu costs between about six and 25 pigs. Pigs are very valuable in traditional Vanuatu culture. In traditional villages, the more pigs a man has, the greater his status and wealth. In many villages pigs' tusks are used as currency. Pigs buy wives, so the more pigs a man has, the more wives he can have. Pigs pay debt, and pay a fine for crime including murder and sleeping with another man's wife. In parts of Vanuatu there is a grading system for men. They attempt to move up the grades, each grade giving more magic powers and status until at the top they become a chief. A man must sacrifice pigs to move up a grade and gain more magic powers and status. Pigs, therefore, are a very highly sought after possession.

"Many communities in Vanuatu have converted to Christianity and so men in those villages only have one wife, but a bride price of pigs would be paid for her. Women look after the man's pigs in the village."

Because of the bride price, and women's low status, domestic violence in Vanuatu is very high she says.

"There is a perception that a wife belongs to a man once the bride price has been paid. Statistics from the United Nations indicate that more than one in four [28 per cent] women thinks it is all right for her husband to beat her to discipline her or teach her a lesson; and almost one in three [32 per cent] believe that a man is justified in beating his wife if the bride price has been paid. Sixty per cent of women have suffered physical violence by their partner and one in three girls have suffered sexual abuse before 15 years."

Her book, though raising awareness of these issue, has a positive message.

This story, though, is full of paradoxes, and one is that although women have a very low status, they have an amazing strength to rise up and overcome the struggles they face.

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They are intensely spiritual, content and wise, and understand the world in a way that many of us in the West do not. This story is about how amazing the women of Vanuatu are."

Bridget saw this when the women grouped together to overcome the challenges to enrol in the course.

"I was really amazed at the strength the women showed as they overcame huge challenges to get to our study group. I was also surprised at the numerous people in the community who couldn't see the value of what we were doing, even to the point where I became sure some were trying to sabotage our chance of success."

Day-to-day living was tough on Bridget too. She lived in a concrete apartment in a street that had a swamp in it, Her diet was vegetables and coconut milk. There was no transport or mobile phones and she had to get used walking for up to two hours if she wanted to visit a preschool, or give a teacher a message.

Papamoa teacher Bridget Isichei has written about her experiences helping vulnerable women in a poverty-stricken shantytown in a remote part of Vanuatu. Photo/supplied
Papamoa teacher Bridget Isichei has written about her experiences helping vulnerable women in a poverty-stricken shantytown in a remote part of Vanuatu. Photo/supplied

"It took a month to enrol the women in the course, just to walk to each preschool, explain what it was and ask them if they wanted to be part of it. Most of the women had not heard of studying at this level, and many were not sure if they were allowed to study."

As the course progressed, obstacles she didn't even contemplate kept arising.

"The women's children got very ill and there was no medicine at the hospital. The women would walk for hours everyday to join together to study, they had no electricity and couldn't see the textbooks after dark, people in the town opposed and made the process of fundraising and paying fees near impossible. Husbands sometimes would take and spend the money we had been saving."

Every day in Vanuatu, Bridget would write in her spare time.

"I wrote long letters home each week, which turned into blogs. I had a lot of written content, hundreds of pages of things that happened. I used that content to write the book. It took eight years to get the book how I wanted it. I have always known it was a really important story, and my main aim has been to try and tell it as best I could."

Her dedication to telling the story paid off when she entered it in an Australian literary competition - Finch Memoir Prize - and got runner-up.

It took a month to enrol the women in the course, just to walk to each preschool, explain what it was and ask them if they wanted to be part of it. Most of the women had not heard of studying at this level, and many were not sure if they were allowed to study.

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Since she left Vanuatu it was difficult to keep in contact with the women due to lack of email but has had word they are doing well, and that several other young teachers have followed in those footsteps and done the same course.

One has gone on to get a scholarship in Fiji. She has completed the Diploma in Children's Services and now works for world vision in Vanuatu strengthening early childhood programmes.

An early childhood teacher since aged 21, now that she is back in New Zealand Bridget is area manager for Beststart where she manages a group of early childhood education centres in Tauranga.

She is passionate about early childhood teaching for its potential to make a difference in people's lives.

"The work that early childhood teachers do makes a big impact on what the world will be like in the future. Early childhood teachers have always known their work is important but recently a growing body of evidence has come out that supports the importance of quality early childhood services.

The experiences children have in their first 1000 days has a direct impact on how well children will succeed in life. "Quality early experiences will reduce the child's chance of committing crime, improve their adult mental health and increase the chances they will maintain good relationships as adults."

She hopes her book will raise awareness for New Zealanders about some of the conditions women live in the Pacific Islands.

"Most New Zealanders will be very surprised at the conditions that people [especially women and children] in Vanuatu live in.

"Domestic violence in Vanuatu is forbidden to talk about, which is an issue that needs tackling. More support and funding could be given to women's groups within Vanuatu to provide education for men and women on the issue."

An early childhood teacher since aged 21, now that she is back in New Zealand Bridget is area manager for Beststart where she manages a group of early childhood education centres in Tauranga.

She is passionate about early childhood teaching for its potential to make a difference in people's lives.

"The work that early childhood teachers do makes a big impact on what the world will be like in the future. Early childhood teachers have always known their work is important but recently a growing body of evidence has come out that supports the importance of quality early childhood services.

The experiences children have in their first 1000 days has a direct impact on how well children will succeed in life. "Quality early experiences will reduce the child's chance of committing crime, improve their adult mental health and increase the chances they will maintain good relationships as adults."

She hopes her book will raise awareness for New Zealanders about some of the conditions women live in the Pacific Islands.

"Most New Zealanders will be very surprised at the conditions that people [especially women and children] in Vanuatu live in.

"Domestic violence in Vanuatu is forbidden to talk about, which is an issue that needs tackling. More support and funding could be given to women's groups within Vanuatu to provide education for men and women on the issue."