Fiji: Women's Groups fed up with the suffering brought by men's bullying coups, and wish to be heard
Wednesday December 13, 2006
Men bluster, women suffer How typical. Fiji is allowed to field a team at the sevens rugby tournament in Wellington next February, to play a sport that Fiji's rugby-mad military chief Frank Bainimarama actually cares about. But their poor netballers miss out on hosting the netball world championships next year, and may even be excluded from playing altogether.
So far, so Pacific. The men bluster and posture and the women end up suffering, apparently in silence.
Scan the hundreds of thousands of words devoted to Fiji's political crisis in the mainstream media, and you'd get the impression Fiji's women have nothing to say about the coup. The men have done all the talking.
Thus we get gung-ho pronouncements from (male) commentators that this is a good coup, a justifiable coup, a necessary means to a just end, given all that corruption and those controversial bills. Of course, they're controversial no more. Controversy implies some level of debate, and with the coup all talking has ended.
Was there, for example, a case to be made for the Qoliqoli Bill, which according to one academic, sought to right a historical wrong? Did the Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill have any redeeming features outside the infamous (and since removed) amnesty clause for 2000 coup plotters? That's a discussion Fijians won't be having under Frank.
In some quarters there's even a grudging admiration for Frank for having achieved such a benign and bloodless coup. Which is to say, a supposedly victimless coup.
But talk to Fijian women and the feeling is very different. Says Virisila Buadromo, head of the Women's Rights Centre: "We feel violated and compromised by this illegal takeover. We're in a coup cycle and this is reinforcing this idea to young people, that you can use bullying tactics to impose your will on the rest of the people. This negative male posturing sends out a really bad message. It's not just about today. It's about future generations."
There is no sense among women I've been in contact with that this is in any way a popular coup. Among Fijian women's groups, all of which have spoken out against the coup, and all multi-ethnic, there is a consensus that coups exact too high a price from Fiji's poor and disenfranchised, particularly women and children.
The casualties of this coup are already mounting, as the tourist industry cuts staff and reduces working hours.
Young Fijian women, Indian and indigenous, signed an open letter last week pleading for the return of the elected Government and lamenting a ruined future, as international scholarships and employment dried up. They had some harsh words for Fiji's negative male models, too.
"Concerned mother" of Suva writes on the Fiji Times website that working-class Fijians are fed up. Bainimarama and his men "have shelter, food and transportation ... we can barely survive another day ... What am I going to feed my children? If there is no work, how will I be able to pay for my rent?"
According to research by the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre on the impact of the 2000 coup, 72 per cent of women surveyed either lost their jobs or had reduced working hours and pay cuts as a result of that coup. The number of households earning less than $50 a week more than doubled after the coup.
The research also showed an increase in physical and verbal domestic abuse because of financial stress and a general disrespect for the law following the coup, as well as other social and economic impacts and increased assaults by the police and military.
In one online forum, women talked about the military excesses that accompanied the coups.
"My grandmother's village and many others in the interior of Viti Levu were taken over by the military in the 2000 coup. Strong men were separated from their families and beaten by soldiers ... soldiers went into their bures raping women and taking what they pleased."
Is there any reason to suppose this coup will be any different?
Already, Bainimarama and his men are showing a growing intolerance for criticism. There have been attempts to censor the media, supposedly to prevent incitement. Vocal critics of the coup have been questioned by the military.
And those prominent in the women's rights movement have been at the receiving end of intimidation.
Virisila Buadromo was threatened over the phone after circulating a letter that called on Bainimarama to back down. A human rights lawyer, Imrana Jalal, who wrote a critical article in the Fiji Times, was threatened with rape.
Which explains why public criticism of the coup in Fiji has remained muted.
Mere Lomaloma-Elliott, a Kiwi-Fijian who moved to Suva to manage the staging of the netball championships, has noticed the climate of fear. "You say anything bad about the commander and the next thing you get a truck outside your door and you're taken up to the Army camp."
What do women want? Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, who heads a women's peace group born out of the 2000 coup, wants to ensure women aren't shut out of the political process.
She says Fijian women want home-grown solutions for the complex issues at the heart of the coups - and the time and space to work them out. They want a Commission of Truth, Justice and Resolution to heal past hurts and chart a visionary future. They want electoral reform to address the ethnic divide in Fijian politics.
They want to be listened to. For a change.