Anne Walker spent 11 years with the YWCA of Fiji that marked the beginning of her long career with grassroots women. Walker is one of the founders of the International Women’s Tribune Centre ( IWTC) and has participated as an activist and organiser in all four UN world conferences on women and NGO Forums in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995).
In this interview with World YWCA, Walker provides a history of the YWCA of Fiji and calls on the UN to take responsibility in bringing peace to the women of Fiji.
The Pacific YWCAs, especially Fiji, have always made peace a priority in their work. How do you think this current situation will affect the work of the YWCA of Fiji and other women’s movements?
The early history of the YWCA of Fiji, certainly in terms of the work around current and public affairs in the 1960s, was very focused on the Fiji independence struggle and the fight against nuclear testing in Mururoa, French Polynesia. The YWCA took a leading role in both of these major events, joining forces with other community groups and, in the late 60s, with students from the newly established University of the South Pacific.
With a broad-based constituency that represented all races and cultures, all religions and generations, the YWCA encouraged the young people of Fiji to speak for themselves and to make themselves heard. This was not always popular! But it provided a space for emerging leaders who gave enormous impetus in the early years of Independence (1970 onwards) and for many years there seemed to be no limit to what Fiji could achieve as a multi-cultural, multi-racial country showing the way to other emerging democracies across the Pacific region.
This optimism was shattered in 1987 when the soldiers of the Fiji Military Force (FMF), under Corporal Sitiveni Rabuka, stormed Parliament House and took over the government of Timoci Bavadra, Fiji’s democratically elected Prime Minister who headed Fiji’s first truly multi-racial government. YWCA of Fiji’s former General Secretary, Amelia Rokotuivuna, as Campaign Director for Bavadra’s political party, had played a major role in achieving this historic moment one month earlier, and was overjoyed to see a multiracial democracy taking place in Fiji. The military coup destroyed this optimism and hope.
Fiji has now experienced three more “coups” each one further undermining the structure and balance of what had once been a “shining light” amongst democracies in the region. A generation of young people has grown up in Fiji never knowing anything but a “coup culture” and the power of the gun in taking over the government.
This “coup culture” has weakened and demoralised much of Fiji’s once-vibrant and optimistic community and I would include the YWCA in this process. However, the defiant and powerful work of groups such as Femlink Pacific, a community media group led by Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, a YWCA of Fiji member, has kept the dream of a peaceful, equitable and visionary Fiji alive. Femlink Pacific focuses its work on UNSCR 1325 and constantly calls on the government to make women part of the peace mediation process.
The YWCA of Fiji is finding itself more and more drawn into this courageous stand and my belief is that it will grow and prosper as it expands its work as a long-time fighter for women, peace and justice.
What role should the United Nations be playing, if any?
The UN has an important part to play in this process and not only as an organisation that calls meetings and makes statements. In fact these are having little effect on the current situation as Colonel Bainimarama cuts himself off from all outside influences in his attempt to cement his control over all policies, actions, the media and the people.
This is disappointing of course, as I was one of many YWCA people who took part in UN World Conferences on Women from 1975 to 1995 and in subsequent Special Sessions and meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women, drawing up plans of action, reports, documents of all kinds that outline the ways in which Member States of the UN can achieve true gender equality and an end to the exploitation of women at all levels of society. Fiji has been a signatory to these documents over the years.
I wrote a letter to the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, last week outlining my thoughts on the role of the UN in funding the Fijian Military Force (FMF) as a “peacekeeping force” and calling for the UN to stop using Fiji soldiers in trouble spots around the world, and thereby stop funding the government and the FMF as it overrides the rule of law in Fiji. I believe the UN should take immediate action in this regard.
What is one action other YWCA can take to help the YWCA of Fiji at this current time?
I would hope that all YWCAs would lobby their governments, including UN representatives, to use the UN Security Council resolution 1325 as a means of demanding that the YWCA of Fiji and all women in Fiji be given a role as peace mediators, peace builders, peace keepers as Fiji works its way out of a military dictatorship and back to being a respected and stable democracy.
Resolutions such as 1325 are of no use whatsoever if the Member States who signed it into law take no actions to see that it is implemented. YWCA women were very much a part of the lobbying and actions taken to see 1325 signed in October 2000 at the UN in New York. I was one of those women. Our hope then and now is that this important resolution will be implemented in all countries and most especially in the trouble spots of the world, which unfortunately at this time includes Fiji.
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 to action?
I would like to see the World YWCA put out a Call to Action that focuses on UNSCR 1325, not only because it represents possibly the most important resolution for women ever passed by the UN Security Council but also because 1325 constantly needs to be explained and disseminated worldwide.
Women caught in violent and exploitative conflict situations in every corner of the world deserve to know their rights and the actions taken on their behalf so that their voices can be heard.