Last month’s Fiji general election was historic because it brought about the first Parliament that has gathered in Fiji in eight years. But also because it set a new record for women representation, reports Asia-Pacific Journalism.
Pacific Scoop: Special Report – By Lucas Dahlström and Mads Anneberg
Some of Salote Radrodro’s friends didn’t think it was a good idea. Time wasn’t right, they said.
She felt the opposite. This was the time to stand, this was exactly the time to make it count.
So she ran for the Parliament of Fiji and got elected – one of the only 38 times a woman has succeeded in doing so since the country’s independence in 1970.
Nearly a month after the elections, on October 14 in a building just across from the restored Parliament, Radrodro is having an exclusive get-together with a small group of other women. They are among Fiji’s eight new female MPs. The latest addition to the 38.
This election was indeed historic because it brought about the first Parliament that has gathered in Fiji in eight years. But also because it set a new record of the representation of women. Sixteen percent, later dropping to 14 percent under cheerful circumstances when Dr Jiko Luveni was replaced as an MP to seize the title as the first ever female Speaker of the House.
This is the story of the Fijiana 8s and why their importance goes beyond their seats in Parliament.
SODELPA’s Salote Radrodro … former Director for Women. Image: SODELPA
One of these eight women is Salote Radrodro. A long-time advocate for women’s rights in Fiji, she had originally retired from her job as Director in the Ministry for Women and shifted her focus to community work.
She says women’s rights was the main reason she ran for elections.
“I wanted to stand up as a voice for the many disadvantaged women. I have seen the struggles in the community; struggle to put food on the table, women that have been abused,” says Radrodro.
She believes there was a need for more women to come forward to contribute to the process of returning Fiji to democracy.
As opposed to many others working under the military regime at the time, she chose to stand for SODELPA in the elections. But doesn’t put a great emphasis on the party divides.
On the contrary, Radrodro arranged the get-together this October night in the hope that these eight powerful women can work together across parties for the empowerment of other Fijian women.
“I’m looking to create a women’s caucus in parliament. Regardless of our political affiliation, I believe that we as women should all work together for women’s issues in Parliament and boost women’s participation in the next election,” she says.
Radrodro and her party are looking at measures to support that cause. They are looking at financial assistance for women who run for election and they are looking at quotas for women in Parliament. And this is what she would like to discuss with her female colleagues at their next meetings.
Among the eight is also Dr Jiko Luveni. As former Minister for Women, she used to be Radrodro’s employer, but that is not the title she is known by at the moment. Now, she is the Honourable Madam Speaker.
In the maiden speeches in Parliament, in interviews for this article and generally around the world, men and women have congratulated Dr Luveni on her appointment and called it a great achievement for women in Fiji and in the region.
A milestone. But how does Dr Luveni herself see her appointment in the greater context?
“Well, I reckon it really is a victory for women in the Pacific. We have been striving to reach leadership positions and now that I have been elected as Speaker, I hope it will be an inspiration to the women,” she says.
It is not a coincidence that Dr Luveni has got here. Her whole life, she has worked to prove herself in a male-dominated society.
She was the first female dentist in Fiji and she has excelled in sports such as table tennis, golf and softball.
“I have always wanted to prove myself to be just as good as men. Prove that I’m able to perform the duties of men just as well as them,” she says.
A victory for the Pacific. Graphic: Dahlström and Anneberg/APJ
And now, as Speaker, she has to prove herself once more. To the men who elected her to the position and to the women of the Pacific who see her as a role model.
“I need to perform to higher expectations given that women are always stereotyped and criticised in their performance. So I need to perform just as well or better than previous speakers and prove that a woman can perform this role,” says Dr Luveni.
A vast responsibility. But Dr Luveni has proved herself before, and she plans to do so again.
Dr Luveni does however have another, less idealistic perhaps, approach to gender equality than others who fight the same cause.
“Women must always have the support of men to be able to ascend to these positions, which was very relevant in my case where a majority of men elected me as Speaker. We need for the men to recognise that we can play leadership roles as well,” she says.
Great step forward
One of the many Fijians who regarded Dr Luveni’s appointment as a very special moment was Shamima Ali. The Coordinator of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre has dedicated her life to work for women’s rights on a community as well as a strategic level. And what she saw on TV that day was a great step forward.
“To see a woman up there as the Speaker, it’s just… When I saw that on TV, I was very heartened. It was a proud moment,” she says.
Looking back, it will be regarded as a great achievement for the women of the Pacific, she believes.
When Ali picks up the phone for the interview, she is in Nadi. Her organisation is having a training programme for the Fiji Police Force based on previous concerns about the way they respond to women and crimes against them.
“They are showing great understanding and are very much into it. They know the problems they have within the force,” she says.
Changes are coming about, says Ali, and that is spot on. Change is coming to Fiji, not only in its way back to democracy, but also in its perception of women.
In the sense that the words “woman” and “leader” go better together now than ever, and in the broader sense that the chains of patriarchy and tradition are loosening.
“In the past, women have held their domestic roles. But now, women are getting more educated, more girls are entering school and even staying in school longer than the boys.
And the attitude is changing towards women’s role in leadership positions,” says Dr Priya Chattier, referring to the fact that most of Fiji’s political parties currently have either female presidents or leaders.
In some respects, Dr Chattier is part of the development. Raised in the outskirts of Labasa, Vanua Levu, she went on to pioneer the first gender studies programme in the region at the University of the South Pacific.
Currently, she is a Pacific Research Fellow at the Australian National University where she studies gender relations and social change in Fiji.
“Women are good governors of the house; why not get more women into politics,” she says.
As for the region, Fiji’s recent progress may prove to strike a responsive chord with the voters of its neighbouring countries, says Dr Chattier.
Solomon Islands is up next at the polls and if you are looking for gender equality, you will find room for improvement in the nation’s 50-member Parliament which currently has only one woman.
On a worldwide scale, the Pacific region takes bottom place in terms of women’s representation in Parliaments. However, after the elections Fiji has both surpassed and given a small boost to the regional average.
Where does Fiji stand in the parliamentary gender stakes? Graphic: Dahlström and Anneberg/APJ
But of course it does not stop here for Fiji. Just because eight women got elected this time, it does not mean that progress or even status quo will automatically happen in the next election, says Radrodro. Only hours before this interview, she met with an old school mate. The friend had said seeing Radrodro in Parliament had really motivated her to stand in the next election.
And she is far from the only one. Many – not least young – women have come knocking on Radrodro’s door to seek advice on becoming a candidate in the 2018 elections.
The advice from the newly elected MP is clear; start your work now. You have to be financially independent and you have to be well connected to the people in your community.
Four years is not a long time, says Radrodro, and just how many women will still be standing in four years is impossible to forecast. It requires hard work – from the candidates and the government. The then Minister for Women, Dr Luveni, and her cabinet contacted potential female candidates for several years prior to this election. Forty four stood.
Roshika Deo … remarkable but unsuccessful feminist lawyer candidate. Image: Jet
And you can understand the reservations that some young women may have through the story of Roshika Deo, the remarkable but unsuccessful independent candidate who contested this year’s election.
Deo, a 33-year-old Indo-Fijian lawyer and feminist, has gained great recognition outside Fiji’s borders, winning human’s rights awards in New Zealand and USA.
But on , she got just 1055 votes and would have needed more than 25 times that to claim a seat in Parliament. She says that many people have approached her since, saying they would have voted for her but were compelled to cast their vote elsewhere due to insecurity.
Message for ‘misogynists’
Deo also says that some Fijians may not have been quite ready for the message she was delivering. Certainly, that is true for the group she refers to as the “misogynists”.
Deo’s campaign story tells a lot about the attitude young women have to battle on their road to power. Not least on social media she has faced attacks during the campaign. Attacks she had to largely ignore because she did not want it to steal attention from the campaign itself.
There were homophobic attacks and racist attacks. Threats of rape and threats of death – for instance along the lines of “she needs to be boiled and eaten”.
Not your usual social media nastiness. But the most disturbing, she says, happened in real life. She had been invited to speak at a religious place. From the back, she could hear a widespread chuckle that she later learned had been brought on by a preacher – a man in his 40’s, perhaps – saying an obscene insult about her.
“It really bothered me because this was a man in such a high position of leadership. I felt violated,” says Deo.
It took her a while to shake the feeling, and she couldn’t help thinking that it will continue to be hard for women who venture out into public and political spaces.
“Because every time they go outside the status quo, this is the reaction,” she says.
But Deo’s message is not that this should prevent women from seeking influence – on the contrary it should encourage them.
“If no women step forward, people will not think it’s possible. They need to see it happening. So I don’t want to say it’s easy. It’s not. But it’s just so important.”
This is an article about a positive, self-perpetuating trend of women steadily seizing a bigger share of power in Fiji.
This is not a cause owned solely by activists; it is something the country at large seems to care about. And as such, there was a visibly proud feeling surrounding Dr Luveni’s appointment as Speaker of the House.
But this is joyous mostly because its context is not.
“There’s grave discrimination and gender inequality in our society. There is,” says Shamima Ali.
The rate of violence against women in any country is the great indicator of gender equality, she says, referring to the latest study which was made by her own organisation. It found that nearly two thirds of Fijian women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or intimate partner in their lifetime.
But, as Roshika Deo’s story also illustrates, Ali believes that women in power and the power in women are deeply entwined. That when the Pacific has the world’s lowest rate of women in Parliament it is a reflection of society’s view on women. And consequently that more women in Parliament will reflect positively on society’s view on women.
“Of course, having eight women in Parliament doesn’t mean all is hunky dory. But you know, one step at a time, and this, I believe, is a great step for women’s leadership.
It is very encouraging for young women to see that they can get up there too, but it’s also indicating to the Pacific male leaders that women can get there,” says Ali.
Basically, people express profound optimism around the future empowerment of women in Fiji at this stage. Optimism that these eight women will act not only as role models and targets of young women’s ambitions; that they will also be able to bring around significant change in the system to clear at least some of the obstacles along the way of the women.
Because even though Fiji is moving towards a more even dispersal of power with both genders, it does not happen by itself. But together, the Fijiana 8s stand with a golden opportunity to find a tactic to support the change.
The Fijiana 8s. Graphic: Dahlström and Anneberg/APJ
Mads Anneberg is an Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme student at AUT University. He is reporting on the Asia-Pacific journalism course. He recently returned from a two-week internship with Repuìblika Magazine where he was a Fiji elections reporter.
Lucas Dahlström is a Finnish student journalist on the Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme at AUT University. He has been reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course