Annual reflection: sharing experiences and solutions to support women’s organisations in Fiji

At the third joint Fiji Program Annual Reflection event, several community-based women’s groups in Fiji expressed that through leadership and empowerment programs, they feel they are now finding their voice in their communities and making significant progress toward addressing gender inequality.

The two-day event held in December 2019 was attended by 80 grantee partners from civil society, government, and development partner organisations, who are grant recipients and partners of the Fiji Women’s Fund and the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development (Pacific Women).  Grantee partners who have concluded their work under our previous grants were also included in the process to enhance learning and reflection of the program. This approach enabled both the Fund and Pacific Women to recognise the expertise of grantee partners and the importance of spaces to learn, share and build relationships, network, and capacity development. Below are some key outcomes from the event:

Women’s Economic Empowerment

Susan Pocock, President of the Naitasiri Women in Dairy Group said through the Fijian practice of “solesolevaki” (working together), there is a noticeable change in her community.  “While it has taken time, we can see the community responding to the work that we are doing, and they are more supportive especially now that they can see an increase in household income.”

It was agreed that the impact of women’s economic empowerment is gaining broader support for ending violence against women. For instance, organisations have found that once it becomes apparent that women’s economic activity contributes to family income and increases social well-being, male leadership within communities becomes more open to addressing domestic violence and other social justice issues

Ending Violence Against Women

Sharing similar sentiments to Susan, Semi Lotawa of Rise Beyond the Reef said real change takes time and occurs when people understand the common good. “By involving and educating whole communities especially engaging more men, we will make real progress toward ending violence against women (EVAW). He added that only through the use of culture could one start to make changes in cultural beliefs that perpetuate abuse.

For some grantee partners though, who still faced backlash from their communities, husbands, and families, working with religious organisations has been an approach that they felt had worked.  Having church leaders use a gender analysis of biblical teachings to address violence against women is that Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and House of Sarah.  The influence of the church and faith-based organisations (FBOs) are quite pervasive on people’s attitudes, values, norms, practices, and expressions. This traditional outlook is commonly seen for example, in the misinterpretation of God’s Creation story of a man and a woman in the Bible. The female as equal image-bearer of God with the male as outlined in Genesis Chapter 1 verse 27 is quite often down-played. This commonly held misinterpretation continues to fuel patriarchal values, norms, and practices that women are to be submissive to men in relationships, at home and publicly.

However, organisations working in the women’s rights space expressed concern that men may resist women’s leadership, try to take over or subvert accountability. As such, it is essential that men’s work in EVAW be carefully managed including the content of advocacy messages, and regular reviews of impact are conducted.

Grantee partners expressed the need for inclusivity of the whole of the community also means including gender-non-conforming individuals and also catering to the needs of those living with disabilities.  There was a call for government agencies to ensure that translation services were also provided in the justice system. Examples were provided of investigations and prosecutions being undermined because police are not proficient in sign language. Referral systems also do not accommodate the needs of people with hearing, sight, and other communication challenges.

Women’s Leadership & Decision Making (WLDM)

Partners expressed a strong need to address intergenerational divisions and make space for younger women to navigate and direct their own activities and decision-making in response to their self-determined agendas. In this regard, partners are developing customised leadership toolkits and strategies to facilitate more active and meaningful participation that takes into consideration perspectives and points of view of both aging and younger women. The importance of working within existing power structures to build support for women and girls in leadership initiatives was emphasised. Concern was also expressed about the future of the women’s movement “if we don’t create more opportunities for younger women and fail to validate their contributions…the torch will not be passed.”

ADRA also spoke about their work in the Lau group where they had set up women’s mentorship programs that used the retired educated women of the village to be role models for young women and girls.  ADRA was also able to work through and resolve some of the backlash that a transgender woman faced in one village who was not being accepted. Now the transgender woman is an active member of the women’s group and has been able to contribute to many great fundraising efforts.

Women’s Coalitions for Change

Grantees recognised the need to broaden partnerships in order to expand their reach and impact. This includes increased engagement with the private sector, financial institutions and saving schemes (i.e. the Fiji National Provident Fund) and academic institutions to mainstream gender equity and social inclusion through organisational policies and processes.

There was repeated recognition of how beneficial collaboration amongst partners is. Examples include Medical Services Pacific working with other grantee partners in the room to support women and families in crisis; women’s groups supplying products for women producers, organisations helping each other in collective farming, and women mentoring other women across generations and sectors. The work of the Ministry of Women was also seen as significant in facilitating connections between organisations and groups of women needing specific services (i.e., sexual and reproductive health information), developing and sustaining EVAW work, and supporting financial literacy in rural areas.

Concluding the two-day event, there was also increased awareness and discussion on the emerging need for self-awareness and self-care for activists involved in the women’s movement given the high susceptibility to burnout, especially with frontline workers and those who continue to take on new activities on top of already busy schedules. People also stressed the need to remain cognisant of individual power and how this is used within the movement, especially in relation to younger and less experienced colleagues. More of self-care can be read in our latest blog.

A copy of the full two-day reflections report can be downloaded here:  /reflections_workshop_2019/