Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls gained national prominence in Fiji by organising, through the National Council of Women, a daily prayer vigil when government leaders were held hostage for 56 days during the 2000 coup. Sharon is the founding member of femLINKPACIFIC: Media Initiatives for Women, and has been a member of the YWCA of Fiji since 1986.
In this interview, Bhagwan-Rolls shares her ideas on how the international women’s movement can support the women of Fiji and reflects on the importance of faith in addressing the current crisis.
There are many mixed reports in the international press about the freedom of Fijian media. What is the real story?
All media, including community media that includes femLINKPACIFIC is subject to the Public Emergency Regulation (2009) currently in place. The Ministry of Information, Communications and Archives have advised us that femLINKPACIFIC is also, as we expected, subject to the directives of issued to the mainstream media organisations under the Public Emergency Regulations 2009, which include:
- that all media organisations should comply with the requirements under the regulations and refrains from broadcasting or publishing any news item that is negative in nature which undermines the Government
- that for practical reasons the Permanent Secretary (Information) will be assigned to media outlets to work closely with the respective editors/publishers to ensure that all items for broadcast and publishing comply with the regulations.
In femLINK’s situation, we have been advised that we should send them a rundown of our broadcast content – which I have done together with our community news compilation for the weekend and we could expect a visit from a representative of the Permanent Secretary to review the broadcast material – we have advised them that all material is ready and available – and have now switched on our radio station.
At this stage we remain uncertain about rural broadcasts due to these regulations. We are aware that not only are broadcasts monitored but so are any comments which make their way into the mainstream media. This means that as one is subject to the editorial policy of any news media organisation and so in all honesty, a “sound byte” could get you rapped on the knuckles.
The real story is that the existing information-communication divide between urban and rural communities are getting wider. There are limitations on news coverage and so whereas previously there was “space” for a right of reply on a range of issues, but more importantly issues that were about Fiji’s political situation are now not there.
Subsequently, the message we are receiving through our rural women’s media network is that there is growing anxiety – there is fear and there is also a sense of not knowing. My concern in this regard, is that whereas previously there was a critical and clear role for community based education on a range of issues being delivered to rural communities, especially education of women about human rights commitments, constitutional awareness, economic security and peace building programmes, this will be subject to the PER also.
So how do we ensure that everyone can be part of a process, which leads us back to parliamentary process, which enables communities, especially women, who are already so marginalised from traditional decision-making structures (village committees, district committee, etc) to be part of our peace building process?
Information is power. Information is about community empowerment but the reality is this is very disempowering and this does not augur well for women’s political empowerment. Economic security is also inextricably linked to political security, and even though the rationale by the Reserve Bank to devalue the Fiji dollar by twenty percent is to bring about and support a climate of investment, as we have been highlighting consistently since 2007, good investment also means ensuring social safety nets and protection for women. It must also ensure that investment does not exploit natural resources especially our environment.
What do you the women of Fiji need now from the international women’s movement beyond solidarity and support?
(a) There needs to be critical mobilisation of technical and financial resources to support a Women’s Dialogue Forum.
femLINKPACIFIC and Fiji YWCA are both members of the National Council of Women (NCWF), and the Suva YWCA Chairperson Tauga Vulaono is the NCWF President and I am a Vice President.
femLINKPACIFIC has developed a “Peace Talks” project model to advance UNSCR
1325 and so 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 – but if the YWCA is able to support a technical resource person that would be good.
I see the Women’s Dialogue Forum as a key role for the NCWF to coordinate with a core group of affiliates like the YWCA and femLINKPACIFIC; this will help us collectively negotiate and prepare the women’s agenda for the formal process (too often it is expected that women just continue to work without resources and many of our women’s groups are still volunteer based) and here we will also need technical support -maybe women from similar experiences to share their experiences and lessons learnt where women have worked through a process of our own (mediated) dialogue and engagement in a formal process.
I see the steps being as a mediated/facilitated process as follows:
- NCWF Fiji 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 in a 2 – 3 days of setting the scene – putting the context of women’s human rights/peace and security as the framework for discussions and then the consultation working toward clear outcomes/recommendations
- the outcomes are fed into a comprehensive 3 – 5 day Women Leaders consultation (with 2 days for young women’s representatives) bringing together 3 representatives from each affiliate (including 1 young woman) to finalise and adopt the final collective women’s agenda; the meeting also confirms who the core reps of any formal process will be
- the outcomes are presented to all key stakeholders – in and outside of Fiji and forms the basis of the women’s negotiations
- 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
This process would also be a very important starting process of training women for future leadership – not just in parliament (and we need to lobby for Temporary Special Measures) but also in local government and other critical local levels of decision making.
(b) Stage peace events in solidarity with the Suva Peace Vigil Collective (1-2pm every Thursday)
(c) There is also a need for support to mobilise “around the C”. Fiji is a predominantly Christian community but there is a critical need for us to encourage and support as YWCA members a greater ecumenical approach to our work across the “faith divide” so it would be helpful to also have examples where other YWCAs have worked in similar circumstances.
How do we communicate our faith belief in a process that upholds feminist principles? We need to be able to share the use of inclusive language. As Taufa Vakatale said many years ago in an interview after the May 2000 crisis,”What is C for me”? C for me is a very practical C, where as with others they would like to go more deeply in the bible but for me I’d like to read my bible, I’d like to interpret my bible and have some help from people and what does it mean for me as a Christian and I think it’s the strength of the movement and I think I am not the only one, even if they were others who don’t think of practicing their C like I do but perhaps go into some deeper Biblical studies and theology of a Christian movement like the YWCA. I think it makes us start to think of ourselves and who we are rather than just being a women’s movement.”
What role should the United Nations be playing, if any?
What role should the UThis is a time for the UN to really show its commitment to UNSCR1325 and to continue to support any political dialogue process.nited Nations be playing, if any?
As I have stated previously, the UN, the Commonwealth Secretariat through the Pacific Forum Leaders must keep Fiji on the agenda and must continue to dialogue with the political leaders of Fiji, and also take responsibility for being far more inclusive of women’s leadership.
There have been advancements but not substantively because without women, youth and other too often marginalised groups, there will not be a sustainable resolution in this long and very complex political history in our country.
The UN as well as the Pacific Forum has a responsibility to also ensure a Pacific woman or a woman is appointed in any future mediation – or initiatives.
Is there hope for Fiji?
There is always hope. There is hope that we will feel immobilised but that by understanding that conflict transformation is hard work and a long process, we must continue to be hopeful.
At a personal level, the way I see it is this. I am in a privileged position with the benefit of my work, my family and other great mentor support. I have the privilege of information, being able to communicate and to have a “voice”.
I have had the privilege of growing up through the YWCA through some good and not so good times. If I do have hope for myself, I must be hopeful for my children and also the women and girls whom we are called to serve through our work.