The Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation, Hon. Mereseini Vuniwaqa;
Honourable Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament;
Your Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
The Ambassador of the European Union in Fiji and the Pacific, His Excellency Mr Sujiro Seam;
The UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office Representative, Ms Sandra Bernklau;
Permanent Secretaries and Senior Government Officials;
The Civil Society Organisations;
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Bula Vinaka and good morning to you all.
Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls, and marks the beginning of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. I would like to invite everyone in this room to stand and observe a moment of silence to honour the many women and girls who have been murdered, injured, abused or otherwise harmed.
I also want to acknowledge—more than acknowledge, I want to praise and thank—the advocates and women’s rights organisations and the community-based organisations that have been working tirelessly to end the suffering of so many women and the fear that they must live with every day.
One woman who experiences violence is one too many. One child who experiences or witnesses violence is one too many. One person who thinks it is okay to assault a woman is one too many. One witness who turns a blind eye to such violence is one too many. One woman turned away when she asks for help is one too many. And one man who assaults a woman or a child and is not held accountable and punished according to law for his crimes is one too many.
But more than that, when a man is not brought to justice for an attack on a woman or child, it creates an environment of impunity and permissiveness that no civilized society can accept in good conscience. You have heard me speak out on this subject for several years. We have changed laws, and we are enforcing the laws. And we will not take one step back.
Eliminating violence against women and girls will not be easy. We know it is far too prevalent in Fiji, and it has unfortunately become embedded in our culture. But we are not constrained by history, and we can and we must purge the ugliness we retain from our past. As societies become more enlightened, they shed negative behaviours that were once common. They confront their past and their harmful traditions. They confront their prejudices, their superstitions, and their violence, too. It happens everywhere, and it is happening here.
So I am quite pleased to be here today for the official launch of a National Consultation process for the development of the Fiji National Action Plan to Prevent Violence against all Women and Girls.
Fiji will be the first Pacific island country and one of the only two countries globally—alongside Australia—to have a whole-of-government, whole-of-population, inclusive and fully funded evidence-based approach to developing a national action plan to prevent violence against all women and girls before it starts.
I extend my gratitude to our valued development partners, including the European Union, the Governments of Australia and New Zealand and UN Women for making this significant initiative possible through the Pacific Partnership to End Violence against Women and Girls programme, as well as the working group, secretariat, and NGOs and civil society organisations which have supported this consultation process.
It pains me to say that two of every three women in Fiji have experienced physical or sexual violence from a male intimate partner in their lifetime. One in five women have experienced sexual harassment in a workplace. One in three women in Fiji have experienced physical or sexual violence from a man who is not their partner. In 2019 alone, 10 women were killed by their intimate partners.
Our women and girls are targeted at home as well as in their workplace, in schools, hospitals, and universities, on the street and online. No space is immune. This not only affects the survivors themselves, but the children who are exposed to it, their extended families, their friends, their work colleagues and ultimately the nation.
There are not only personal stories behind these statistics – but there are also attitudes, social norms, gender roles and rigid stereotypes, where everyday sexism, discrimination and disrespect of women and girls go unchallenged in our society; it is normalised, excused and tolerated. Those attitudes are embedded in gender inequality, men’s power and control over women and a failure to recognize the inherent equality and dignity of all women and girls.
As your Prime Minister, I am proud that it was my Government in 2009 that brought into law the Domestic Violence Act, which for the first time laid a legal foundation that recognised gender-based violence as a very significant national problem. The Domestic Violence Helpline 1560 has made the reporting of domestic violence easier for survivors.
The Child Helpline 1325 has given child victims of abuse a way to have their cries heard. Of course, as we know, girls and boys both suffer from violence at the hands of abusers. Those abusers can be men, they can be women as well, so it’s important all Fijian children know these are services they can call on.
The Service Delivery Protocol for domestic violence service providers continues to provide and strengthen a collaborative and co-ordinated response to cases. Despite the legal and policy reforms we have undertaken and the programmes we have established, we know that much more needs to be done to stem violence against women and girls—and the statistics bear that out.
In order to end this national scourge, we must first come to a shared understanding among us Fijians as to why violence against women and girls happens in Fiji—its root causes and contributing factors. For starters, we must eradicate the notion that women are in any way weaker or somehow lesser than.
Girls, boys, and indeed every Fijian, must see women as leaders, as decision-makers, as movers and shakers in society. That begins with securing equality of opportunity for every Fijian. And we know opportunity is borne from education.
We have made education free in Fiji, and that has had a profound impact on girls and young women most of all. It used to be that, faced with financial considerations, parents would choose which children to send to school, and they mostly chose their sons. Together, we’ve flipped that narrative on its head. Today, 92% of girls in Fiji complete their secondary school education, and women make up the majority of graduates in our tertiary institutions.
This new generation of empowered and well-educated women deserve to rise as far as their abilities can take them. For its part, the Fijian Government has chosen to lead by doing, not only in building a foundation of a violence-free Fiji, but in creating equality of opportunity for Fijian women. We have introduced open-merit recruitment and advancement within the civil service: That means people are hired and promoted based on their ability, not based on their ethnicity, not based on who they know, and certainly not based on their gender. For the first time, women can compete on a level playing field. For the first time, merit – and merit alone – matters.
Today, nearly 30% of leadership positions in the Fijian Civil Service are women. Given the achievements of Fijian women in education, we expect that figure to grow.
But that movement can’t end at the halls of government buildings, it must sweep across society. Whether it’s in sports organisations, in businesses, in parent-teacher associations, clubs, or community groups, we’ve sadly seen the same painful story play out time and again in Fiji: Women who had the skills, drive, and ambition to lead, found themselves behind-the-scenes, in the charge of less qualified men because gender took precedence over hard work. That era must end. We must see the democratisation of every workplace, every community, every club, so that the playing field is level everywhere, and women can achieve the success their ideas and talents deserve.
As more women kick down the doors of old boys’ clubs by rising to become decision-makers in Government, as well as in the political life, in the private sector, and across our society, we do some of the most important work of rooting out the ugly superiority complex that so often breeds violence against women and girls in this country.
My fellow Fijians, violence against women and girls is not a happy or simple subject for the nation to discuss. But most of the things that are worth doing are hard, but we do not shy away from them precisely because they are worth doing. This important conversation through the national consultation will ensure that the Fiji National Action Plan is informed by the broad variety of experience, knowledge and expertise that exist in Fiji.
The challenge for all of us, Government at all levels, each one of us as Fijians, lies in this – to act together. Together we can put measures in place to stop violence before it starts.
Substantial global evidence shows that violence against women and girls is preventable. It is not inevitable. It is not a permanent condition that we must endure. And it is preventable within years, not lifetimes. When we look back on this gathering, wouldn’t we all like to say – that on this day, November 25th, 2020, we started something that changed Fiji forever and for the better?
Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests, I am delighted to open the National Consultation for the development of the Fiji National Action Plan to Prevent Violence against all Women and Girls.
Thank You – Vinaka vakalevu.