By Miri Cypers, JWI Senior Policy and Advocacy Specialist
I’ve just returned from 10 days in Fiji representing Jewish Women International as part of the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. After hosting a legal fellow from Timor Leste in the Pacific Islands for six weeks, JWI sent me to participate in the reciprocal part of the exchange program, where I was one of six advocates from various U.S. advocacy organizations meeting with civil society groups, faith leaders, and government officials about violence against women in Fiji and Fijian culture.
More than just a beautiful country, Fiji is incredibly diverse religiously, ethnically and culturally. It’s important to note that they’re experiencing significant political instability: In 2006 the military took over in a coup and abolished the legislature. The military government is currently drafting a new constitution and plans to hold elections in 2014. The political situation is tense; the government requires civil society organizations to get permits for meetings, and many are critical of the government’s exertion of control over the press and non-governmental organizations.
On our first day of meetings, we met with the incredible leaders of four organizations: The Fiji Women’s Crisis Center, the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, FemLINK Pacific and the Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team. All were working to promote women’s rights and address violence against women in Fiji and the Pacific. These organizations are leading the way in their own country and in the region to strengthen laws that protect women and give women from all geographic areas in Fiji a voice. One interesting project that FemLINK Pacific works on is going into rural areas to allow women to develop and run their own local radio shows, providing information and women-centered news to Fijians in more remote areas.
The advocates from the four organizations were extremely sophisticated and helped me and my U.S. colleagues understand the evolution of the feminist and anti-violence movement in Fiji. They explained some of the unique challenges they face, given the tenuous political situation, and the services and resources available to women in Fiji. One of the most interesting points about the Fiji women’s rights movement was how it developed very closely with the anti-violence movement, and how interconnected they continue to be.
On my second day in Fiji, The U.S. advocates and I met with two very different organizations working to improve the lives of women. In the morning we met with Dr. Rajni Chand and Rajini Kumar of the Women’s Information Network Fiji (WINET-Fiji), an NGO that conducts trainings on a range of issues – from child abuse to domestic violence to suicide prevention – for Indo-Fijian women in remote areas. One of the challenges that many advocates raised with us throughout the course of our meetings is that many Fijian women are not aware of the laws and their rights, making these workshops vital for rural women who are not educated like women in urban areas.
After a lunch of Indian food and Fanta at a restaurant beloved by the expat community in Fiji, we headed to a meeting with a few representatives of the faith-based community to discuss how religious communities are responding to violence against women. Fiji is home to many religious communities, from Anglicans to Catholics to Methodists to Hindus to Muslims, and religious affiliation is significant for the majority of Fiji’s population.
Attendees at the meeting included the head of the Dioces of Polynesia, Bishop Winston Halapua of the Anglican Church, who is a leading voice in the faith community against gender-based violence. Marama Tuisawa from the House of Sarah was also there – she runs a counseling center for Anglican women – as well as representatives from the Catholic and Methodist women’s organizations who are also working on this issue. I shared with the group JWI’s approach to working with the faith community to combat abuse in the U.S. and we discussed the challenges and opportunities that diverse faith communities in Fiji face. It became clear that leadership from influential clergy members from all religious communities is needed in order to educate Fijians about ending violence against women.
The rest of my time in Fiji was a whirlwind of meeting and learning. I was excited to lead a four-hour training at the beautiful University of the South Pacific, along with my U.S. colleagues Lisalyn Jacobs of Legal Momentum and Maya Raghu of Futures Without Violence. Our training focused on best practices for issue advocacy, coalition building, and engaging faith leaders in anti-violence work based on our work on the Violence Against Women Act in the U.S. About 30 Fijians from many sectors, from law enforcement to the faith community to service providers, attended the training and the discussion was lively and informative.
I led the training on engaging with the faith community and shared with the audience how the faith community could be a resource and not a barrier in addressing domestic violence. As we discussed some of the challenges that faith communities pose to addressing domestic violence, participants overwhelmingly stated their belief that Fijian clergy members from all communities need better education on the issue and gender sensitivity training. Participants walked away with concrete ideas to strengthen their issue advocacy, build broad and diverse coalitions, and engage with clergy members to work with them to address violence against women.
Eventually our group returned to the University of the South Pacific for further training. Our U.S. colleagues from AEquitas and Break the Cycle led the workshops, focusing on training law enforcement, service providers, civil society groups and faith leaders, on improving the investigation and prosecution of domestic violence. The participants were incredibly lively, working in small and large groups to identify challenges in prosecution and ensure that victims have access to justice. U.S. Ambassador to Fiji Frankie Reed joined us for part of the session, and we were able to speak with her briefly to discuss our experiences.
Our group did do some exploring: We headed out of Suva and explored the history and natural beauty of Fiji, staying on the island of Leleuvia. We also took day trips to Bau Island to learn about Fijian culture and traditions from a village chief, and toured Fiji’s first capital of Levuka to learn more about Fiji’s colonial past.
I feel so privileged to have been part of this trip and experience first-hand the amazing work being done around the world to advance women’s rights and combat violence against women.