An interview with Sharon Bhagwan Rolls of femLINKPACIFIC, a feminist communications organisation in Fiji.
AWID: Last month, there was a military coup in Fiji, the fourth in 22 years. What is the situation at the moment?
SHARON BHAGWAN ROLLS: First of all I would just like to extend my sincere appreciation to the networks, women's groups and individuals who have been extending support and solidarity to us since the events of Easter Weekend this year, when the President of Fiji purportedly abrogated the constitution, and the citizens of Fiji have been living under a Public Emergency Decree which now extends into its second month.
There has been a decision to devalue the Fijian dollar by 20 per cent which is having an impact on prices of basic goods. This is further exacerbating what was already a very unfortunate economic reality for us. The economic impact of the series of coups is bringing home the reality that conflict is not good business.
There is an uncanny calmness because people have to continue to work and children have to continue to go to school, so I guess there is also a sense of "life must go on." However there is also uncertainty especially with the control of information through the mainstream media and this is most apparent in rural communities who were already living within the reality of an information and communication gap.
Talking to rural women also, especially those who have suffered due to the devastating floods in January this year, there is still a sense of reliance on the government to provide, but at another level we are not sure just how much available financial resources the administration has to support the social welfare and rural development needs of these communities. It will be very interesting to see what the outcomes of the national budget for 2010 will look like.
Mainstream information and communication is seriously controlled. Our organisation runs a community radio and is also subjected to censorship by the military. We have to send our broadcast log and community news collation to the Ministry of Information prior to each broadcast. We are also intently monitored when we are on air, and on our monthly “Enews bulletin” and “Community Radio Times.” This very much reminds me of the media control following the first military coup on May 14, 1987.
However, we are hoping that we can continue with our work, despite there being restrictions on public meetings. We have been able to produce a new “Women, Peace and Human Security” radio series from our visits, as I have been able to conduct rural consultations during the last three weeks and hope that we will also be able to stage the rural broadcasts with our community radio station.
Community or alternative media is a critical space right now.Even if we are only communicating within an 8 – 10 kilometre radius it is an important space that we will work hard to retain. Ultimately though, with information and communication channels being tightly controlled rural women will continue to be further marginalised and isolated.
femlinkPACIFIC has been advocating the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 which mandates the meaningful participation of women in peace-building processes and this has now been stalled because processes of engagement such as the Political Dialogue Forum do not seem to be an immediate priority of the new order. However, I feel that as the women's movement we need to find ways in which we can continue our work safely.
AWID: What in particular are women's experiences not only after this most recent coup, but also of living under military rule?
SBR: I will address this from the micro or grassroots level first. Going back to military coup of December 2006, when I travelled out to meet women in rural communities, there was a sense of isolation from what was happening in the capital city as well as a reality that they just needed to get their children back to school and provide for their families. You need to appreciate that these are women from informal settlements, women who sell at the local markets, who live in squatter settlements or traditional settings, so for them the information and news was very confusing. If we are to make a difference as a women's movement, this is where we need to strengthen our work and efforts. Right now the feeling is the same, especially since many of the women whom we work with experienced the brunt of the devastating floods in January 2009 and are still trying to put their lives back together, so their immediate priority is their families. On our recent visits the key insecurities identified were economic, health, environmental, as well as human security issues relating to infrastructure like improved roads and water supply.
There is also a sense of fear and uncertainty as with any political crisis. I feel that the military has demonstrated its might very early on and the ongoing detention of anyone who is considered to be a risk in light of the Public Emergency Decree is a way to silence any possible opportunity to publicly denounce the actions - and if you did, with the media control in place, it would be very unlikely that your message would be heard. So we do need to consider alternatives. What is critical right now is to ensure women's realities are not lost in the political maze and that the status, particularly of rural women, can provide critical development benchmarks to demonstrate that we need democratic governance so that women can have a place in decision making for their peace and human security.
There is also a need to link the growing violence, especially sexual and domestic violence to the political realities and how these impact very clearly on the status of women.
AWID: How have women's organisations responded to these challenges?
SBR: Dating back to 1987, following each military or civilian coup, women have responded actively calling for respect for the rule of law and human rights, and these have been acts of peace and non violence. Women have been detained in 1987 and again in 2006 for their work. Women human rights activists in particular were detained and suffered at the hands of the military following the takeover in 2006.
Women have rallied together, through silent peace vigils which demonstrate our commitment to peace and make the point that we will not be silenced by the acts of the overthrow of any democratic government. We have negotiated at the policy level, as well as by using our women's networks to communicate with other key political players.
Women have documented events, they have spoken out on human rights abuses and they have also been involved in ongoing lobbying and advocacy especially for a formal and mediated dialogue process which would have the support of the UN and the Commonwealth Secretariat. But this is not easy especially as these are new concepts which need to be discussed and understood by the broader movement, by more women. A challenge has been the diverse viewpoints and perspectives within civil society on the styles of engagement with those who now have political power, and also on the process of the development of a People's Charter which now is the mandate of the current political administration, and so we have to better understand each other in order to be able to move forward collectively.
AWID: What do you see as a viable way to get Fiji back to democratic governance, and what will women's roles be in achieving this?
SBR: There is a critical need to continue to strengthen women's capacity as leaders and negotiators during this current period. It is critical for women to understand how to negotiate and proceed through some very new waters, as well as how not to lose sight of the need to attain parliamentary democracy while we address some critical development issues, such as the feminization of poverty, which is a stark reality right now. Also, how do we analytically respond to developments at the macro-economic level? Especially when women continue to face the brunt of their poverty situation - poverty of opportunity, information as well as the reality of struggling to pay school fees, rent and other expenses. This is the situation faced by rural women, older women and women with disabilities and other marginalized groups.
So any process must ensure that women are empowered to speak and be heard, especially since we can, as women, also perpetuate the traditional barriers of decision making.
We need to be assisted in this dialogue process. We cannot simply focus on the process of elections. We also need to be able to analytically address poverty which is extremely disempowering to women and affects their engagement in any political process. We need to be able to address issues of security sector governance and we also need to prepare women who are willing to participate in future elections.
I have been discussing a possible process, which is something I feel has been needed in Fiji since the May 2000 coup, which as you can appreciate, impacted the women's movement and exacerbated barriers between racial and socio-economic groups. Apart from my work with femLINKPACIFIC, I wear other hats. I am the second vice president of the National Council of Women of Fiji (NCWF) and a member of other affiliate organisations of the NCWF, such as the YWCA and the Poor Relief Society in Fiji. It is in all these capacities that I have been working towards putting in place a process that would address these issues.
There needs to be critical mobilization of technical and financial resources to support a Women's Dialogue Forum. femLINKPACIFIC has developed a "Peace Talks" project model to advance UNSCR 1325 and we will continue to work with our Fiji and regional partners to enhance the development of a core group of women who can enhance their knowledge and capacity to be at the formal peace process.
The NCWF with a core group of affiliates like the YWCA and femLINKPACIFIC would have a key role in coordinating the Women's Dialogue Forum. This will help us collectively negotiate and prepare the women's agenda for the formal process. Here we will need technical support. We would be interested in hearing from women who have worked through a process of mediated dialogue and engagement in a formal peace process. Financial resources are also critical. Too often it is expected that women will just continue to work without resources and many of our women's groups are still volunteer based.
I see the steps of a mediated or facilitated process being as follows:
1. NCWF undertakes a series of consultative meetings with women who belong to the networks of affiliates in rural communities. These are meetings that bring women from all ethnic and faith backgrounds together for 2 – 3 days of scene setting. The context of women's human rights, peace and security form the framework for discussion and the consultation will work towards clear outcomes and recommendations.
2. The outcomes are fed into a comprehensive 3 - 5 day women leaders' consultation, with two days for young women's representatives bringing together three representatives from each affiliate, including one young woman, to finalise and adopt the final collective women's agenda. The meeting also confirms who the core representatives of any formal process will be.
3. The outcomes are presented to all key stakeholders in and outside of Fiji and form the basis of the women's negotiations.
4. The outcomes are also presented to other women's networks who are not members of the NCWF in particular the indigenous women's network the Soqosoqo Vakamarama, Fiji Women's Rights Movement and the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre.
This process will be a very important starting point to train women for future leadership, not just in parliament but also in local government and other critical local levels of decision making.