FIJI: Overcoming the Impossible

Tuesday, September 18, 2012
The Fiji Times
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

Delana's achievement is not only outstanding but in the history of Fiji, there has never been a gold medallist at the Olympics.

The last gold medal was brought home from the Commonwealth Games but to have one at the Olympics is a dream come true for all Fiji sports participants. What makes this news doubly special is that Delana is an athlete who is physically disabled yet he won the gold medal in high jump. He has a double barrier yet he managed to overcome that barrier to win gold at the Paralympics.

If this was said last year no one would have believed that it was possible. Everyone would have been looking at his disability rather than his ability. His life struggles have been aired by the media in the last week and I heard on the radio that he and his coach walked from Nausori to the National Stadium to train. Imagine how hard that would have been but despite all odds, Delana proved everyone wrong that our obstacles should not be a barrier to our achievement. Last week I was involved in a BRIDGE training and as part of the training, the documentary, Iron Ladies of Liberia was screened for the participants.

This documentary is a story of the struggles of Liberia and how a woman, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, proved all critics wrong and became the first female president in the whole of the African continent.

Madame Sirleaf was sent into exile and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment but in 2006 she became the president-elect of Liberia. Madame Sirleaf appointed women as Minister of Finance, Minister of Justice, Minister of Commerce and Commissioner of Police.

Madame Sirleaf and her government faced so many obstacles but throughout her first year, she was able to pull Liberia out of the financial doldrums and restore some form of order, financial respite by the cancellation of Liberia's billion dollar debt and today she continues to be the president of Liberia.

Like Delana, Madame Sirleaf saw her obstacles but despite the double barrier or discrimination she faced as a woman and a divorced grandmother, she was able to prove that with determination all obstacles can be overcome.

In Fiji today, we have a lot of barriers faced by women and these barriers can sometimes be seen as a deterrent to their participation in crucial national activities like registration, voting, making submissions to the constitution commission, campaigning or even running as a political candidate. One such barrier is the inability of women to access documents to help them register such as the FNPF card or the birth certificates. This barrier is further expounded by the fact that women have no funds, boats or vehicles to help them reach town in order to acquire those documents.

The barrier to resources is an obstacle to their participation in this very crucial national duty. Another barrier is the role of the media. The barrier of women's representation in the media proves to be an obstacle to women's participation.

For example, in Fiji's daily newspapers' analysis, not much coverage is given to women or women's issues. An analysis of photos taken show that less than 10 per cent of photos focus on women. When reading news articles, opinion columns or sports pages, less than 40 per cent of the coverage is on women's issues. This is a double discrimination for women as they are already living in a patriarchal society where everything is focused on men and the media expounds this bias in the coverage of stories, photos and articles which focus more on men rather than having a media gender audit to ensure that media coverage is fair and gender balanced.

The division of resources spent on women's issues is another barrier. In a recent workshop for women jointly organised by UN Women and the Ministry of Women, participants were invited to attend a workshop where they had to provide for their own meals and transport allowance until the last day of the workshop.

Women were discriminated against and they were inappropriately informed about logistics but expected the women to fend for themselves while at a one-week workshop away from home. The lack of planning, human and capital resources was taken out on women who had to suffer because of the division of resources to carry out women's issues.

Today as we continue with the constitutional submissions, voter registration and elections, women face barriers daily whether it is in the media or through attitudes and policies. Some of those barriers like those highlighted can be addressed to give women a level playing field but some if not addressed appropriately and effectively, will be a deterrent to their participation and progress.

Women's needs have to be addressed and the obstacles they face need to be overcome so that when 2014 approaches, women can be able to participate equally with men.

This can be done through gender friendly policies, gender audit for equal space in the media, gender audit for equal finance allocation in the budget, change in societal expectations and the list goes on.

We cannot change everything all at once but we can all help address the obstacles to women's participation and progress by changing the little we can in our little area, community or society. It would be nice if we can all be Iliesa Delana or Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who both overcame insurmountable barriers and became exceptional people whose names are now recognised worldwide. The reality is that in most cases we need help to overcome the barriers faced by women so that they can be exceptional.

Will you help women participate more effectively? Can you help women be more effective participants in our community?

Can you hold hands with women and give women the level playing field they deserve by helping them overcome the barriers and discrimination they face?