Fiji: Ruth Lechte, Veteran Activist, on Crisis in Fiji

Friday, May 1, 2009
World YECA
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

In the wake of the UN Security Council calling for restoration of democracy and fair elections in Fiji, the World YWCA continues to stand in support and solidarity of the women of Fiji. With no judiciary, constitution or elections in sight, the World YWCA has asked four Fijian women leaders to reflect on the situation in their country and share their hopes and fears for the women of Fiji. Over the next few days, we will post one of the interviews on our website in an effort to highlight women's leadership in Fiji.

In the first interview, Ruth Lechte, National General Secretary of Fiji YWCA from 1962, South Pacific Regional Secretary from 1974, and World YWCA Secretary for Energy and Environment /Appropriate Technology from 1984-94, discusses the immediate issues facing women in Fiji and what the World YWCA needs to do next.

What are the most pressing issues now facing women and children in Fiji?

How long have you got?! The long answer is a description of how the major cultures work and the religions control people thus ensuring women have a second-class status.

Chiefs of the Fijian people are almost all male, leaders of the Indian community ditto. Political leaders also, although the government deposed in 2000 had a better proportion of women.

Violence against women is common. It is well known that poverty falls more heavily on women and children, and families are under stress. I was on the Board of the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre during earlier events, two coups and an armed insurrection, and can witness to the fact that violence against women escalates during such events. The courts are now closed, including the Family Court we fought so hard for, so prosecutions will not take place, at least in the immediate future, which will mean there is no escape from family violence.

It is important to ensure that children keep going to school and the level of anxiety does not prevent this. The floods destroyed many schools and 49% of the population is under 25 years of age. Secondary students pay fees and many will find this difficult. Who will drop out first? The girls of course.

Urbanisation and large squatter housing settlements have families living in VERY substandard accommodation. This has always been a bad situation, it will get worse. It often means that women and children especially live stressful lives and daily life becomes a constant battle. Will the regime see the situation as needing addressing?

The short answer is that the above has been a fact of life for the population, but now we have a further dimension.

What will happen to the women and children in Fiji if the media is silenced?

In Fiji we have something known as the coconut wireless… the grapevine. During earlier events we have seen that refusing news to the people means they will invent their own, rumours fly, and women in the communities become more fearful. The regime would say the media is not silenced - there are newspapers, radio, TV (people will be watching a lot of rugby in lieu of normal programming!) But of course there are certain things that will not be in the public arena - anything that is critical of the regime, or indeed, reports of some 'government' activities.

The Bill of Rights has gone, along with the Constitution, which means political activists will have to think twice. The Fiji Women's Crisis Centre and the Fiji Women's Rights Movement have been very strong since December 2006, attracting intimidation. It will be a tragedy for the families, and especially the women of Fiji, if they are silenced.

The Pacific is often neglected by the international women's movement. How and why should this be changed?

I'm not sure this is true. The YWCA World Council meetings have a good Pacific representation, as does the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The International Women's Tribune Centre and the International Women's Development Agency have always been active here, although not reaching the smaller nations maybe. UNIFEM is also doing a great job.

We have always had indigenous agencies created by our own women in Fiji although you could say that the international feminist movement has been the match that lit this. Fiji is certainly ahead of the other Pacific countries as women engage with the community. We have recently been in the Solomon's and Vanuatu and the contrast is marked.

Of course, internationally more could be done especially in training and funding. Opportunities for skills training, leadership, governance and advocacy are all needed now more than ever.

The World YWCA called for support and solidarity for the women and young women of Fiji. What do you believe should be the next call of action?

All traditional, church and current leaders of Fiji need to recognise that young women are the future and their needs held in mind at all times. This has always been a problem in a traditional authoritarian culture. There are a number of prostitution rackets going on throughout the Pacific (some bad things happening in the Solomon's with the crews of overseas fishing fleets) and an unfortunate percentage of young women in Fiji are involved because they cannot get jobs or training.

There should be a strong call for affirmative action, in all the sectors - commercial, agricultural, official and especially educational. Traditional leaders and especially church ministers condemn young people and are losing their support. It is unfortunate, because now is the time when they should be proactive on behalf of the communities.