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FIJI: Women Sidelined By Military Regime

MELBOURNE, Apr 29 2009 (IPS) - Fiji, a multi-racial, multi-cultural country of 300 islands in the South Pacific, has undergone another coup – the fourth in 22 years. The women of Fiji want their voices to be heard as they work on ways to bring peace back to their country, and they are asking for the United Nations to support their efforts.

Fiji is the preferred destination for myriads of sun-loving tourists worldwide. It is in many respects a tropical paradise with almost all of its land protected in perpetuity for its indigenous peoples. Hotels lease the land from the relevant ‘mataqali’ (tribe) and provide jobs for the mataqali lease-owners.

From 1962 to 1972, the Fiji YWCA helped to establish programmes for women and young people in job training, early childhood education, and rural and community development.

During this time, the YWCA became involved in Fiji’s independence struggle and the fight against nuclear testing in Mururoa, French Polynesia, joining forces with other community groups, and 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 women and young people of Fiji were encouraged to speak for themselves and to make themselves heard. A space was provided for emerging leaders, and for many years there seemed to be no limit to what Fiji could achieve as a multi-cultural, multi-racial example 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.

Fiji YWCA’s former General Secretary, Amelia Rokotuivuna, was Campaign Director for Bavadra’s political party. She had played a major role in the Bavadra government’s rise to power one month earlier, and was overjoyed to see a multiracial democracy taking place in Fiji. The military coup destroyed this optimism and hope.

Fiji experienced 3 more “coups,” in 2000, in 2006, and most recently on 10 April 2009 – when the country’s Supreme Court deemed the current administration of Col. Frank Bainimarama illegal, prompting Fiji’s President Ratu Josefa Iloilo to dismiss the members of the judiciary, to abrogate the 1997 Constitution, and to reinstate the 2006 coup instigator and military chief, Bainimarama as Prime Minister for the next 5 years.

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. Fiji’s women, who played such an important early role in the development of Fiji’s democracy, have been sidelined and ignored.

In fact, this “coup culture” has weakened and demoralised much of Fiji’s once-vibrant and optimistic peace and justice community. However, the defiant and powerful work of groups such as femLINK Pacific, a community media group led by Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, has kept the dream of a peaceful, equitable and visionary Fiji alive.

FemLINK Pacific focuses its work on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 and constantly calls on the government to make women part of the peace mediation process.

Initially, the world’s media blamed racial struggles for the many coups in Fiji, inferring that the Fiji-Indian population, brought in as indentured labourers by the British in the 19th and 20th century to work the sugar cane plantations, and who represented more than 50 percent of the population at the time of the first coup, had caused the indigenous Fijian population to rise up against them.

Events that have unfolded since have shown this to be only a minor cause of Fiji’s unrest. Power struggles have involved an ever-growing and mighty military having disagreements with the government, business men wrangling over government permits, chiefs not wanting commoners to have power, and a host of other causes.

Regardless, each coup has served to stifle voices calling for a Nuclear Free Pacific.

Fiji has suffered dramatically as skilled and experienced professionals have left the country to make their lives elsewhere. Many of these have been Fiji- Indians whose families had lived and worked in Fiji for generations.

The women of Fiji have shown enormous courage and resilience through all these years of coups and unrest. Groups such as the Fiji YWCA, femLINK Pacific, Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and more have stayed active and outspoken. Yet, they have little say in negotiations and are largely ignored by people in power – currently the military. In fact their activities have been severely curtailed and they are under constant intimidation.

International Women’s Tribune Centre (IWTC), headquartered in New York, took an active role in each of the four U.N. World Conferences on Women from 1975 to 1995 and in all subsequent Special Sessions and meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) of ECOSOC, including the lobbying to get Security Council Resolution 1325 endorsed in October 2000.

IWTC believes that, as recommended in resolution 1325, the U.N. should demand that women in Fiji be given a role as peace mediators, peace builders and 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 U.N. member states take no actions to implement them. 1325 is the most important resolution for women ever passed by the Security Council, according to IWTC.

Women caught in violent and exploitative conflict situations in every corner of the world deserve to know their rights so that their voices can be heard in decision making on their behalf. Unfortunately, at this time, Fiji is one of those countries.

The women of Fiji need the support of the U.N. and the world in recovering their once-peaceful and democratic country. According to IWTC, the U.N. could help by ceasing to build up the Fiji Military Forces as contracted “peacekeepers.” These same soldiers are simultaneously being used to overturn the rule of law in their own country, they say.

U.N. peacekeeping funds have been paid to Fiji for more than 30 years and have made it possible for Fiji’s soldiers to be amongst the best equipped and trained in the world. Fiji meanwhile is not at war with any of its neighbours.

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