Unaisi Narawa will make a difference in her lifetime. The only questions are how soon and in how many ways.
A PhD candidate within UQ’s School of Law, Unaisi aims to make strides in the recognition of customary law, particularly in relation to Melanesians who were ‘blackbirded’ – forced or coerced into working as cheap labour elsewhere in the Pacific.
What drives Una in her PhD research?
“This topic is personal because I am Indigenous Fijian on one side but I also have a maternal great-grandfather who was taken to Fiji from the Solomon Islands,” says Unaisi.
“I have relatives, my mother in particular, who are affected by this and it has piqued my interest. My area of research comes from a very personal place, but is also not a topic which has been discussed a lot. Not a lot of research has gone into it."
“For an Indigenous person, our land is very important, but when I look at my ancestors and my family on my mother’s side, we don’t have connections to the land like other Fijians. Well, there is a connection to the land, but no legal attachment.”
It’s a complex and historic predicament that requires much untangling, negotiation and understanding for communities to move forward.
Guiding Unaisi through this important part of her career is mentor Professor Jennifer Corrin, who comes from a background of both academia and private practice in the Pacific Islands. Jennifer worked in the Solomon Islands for 10 years and was a figure mentioned heavily in the research publications that sparked Unaisi’s interest in the area.
They met at a workshop, where Unaisi says she approached the senior academic straight away.
“I am building on the work Jennifer has already done,” Unaisi says.
“I have so much admiration for what has been completed before me. One thing is that I will continue this work as an Indigenous person and also a woman. In our region, gender imbalance is still an issue. “There are a lot of female lawyers, but those academics who do postgraduate or higher research are almost exclusively men. A lot of courts do not have any women in them. Some countries do not have a single female MP."
“We need to get females further up the system. It’s still a patriarchal society."
“This research is so important for me, because eventually I want to be an academic within the system. I want Indigenous people to see someone like me, because it’s a role model for younger Indigenous women.”
Personal passion is a positive for PhD research
In many industries, people will often advise separating passion from the task at hand. However, Jennifer says that Unaisi’s heartfelt reasons for completing her PhD should be harnessed rather than subverted.
“I was actually glad she had that personal connection to the research topic,” she says.
"It’s a long haul in a PhD. You need something you’re excited about. It’s such a challenging undertaking."
“You have to live with it for such a long time. You get all these highs and lows over a sustained period, and you need to ride them out.”
“I’ve already seen some wider impact from legal issues I’ve been involved in discussing. It’s a slow process, but I’m sure Una will see even more progress during her career.
“It shouldn’t matter who is talking about a topic if you can discuss issues with expertise, but there is only so much one can achieve as an outsider. What excites me about Una is that she’s an insider to the culture and can provide such a rich perspective.”
Rather than being isolated to the Pacific Islands, the legal aspects of connection to land have been shown to have ongoing relevancy in places like Australia and Africa, to First Nations people in USA and Canada, and even the British Isles.