Progress, Challenges and Change
Today I am very happy to honour approximately half our population as we celebrate International Women’s Day.
I declare to the nation that the women of Fiji give us many reasons to be proud and grateful.
We see in them wisdom, compassion, and understanding. There is a visible willingness to sacrifice – to give their all – for those whom they love and for causes they care about.
We appreciate their intellectual gifts, their professional and academic attainments and involvement in small businesses.
In fact, a new class of visionary, creative and innovative women entrepreneurs is rapidly emerging. Increasing start-up support is being provided to assist them turn their ideas into viable businesses. When that happens they create jobs Fiji needs for economic growth and prosperity.
Increasingly women occupy positions normally considered the domain of men.
We offer congratulations to Salote Panapasa, Acting Commissioner of the Corrections Service, the first woman to serve in that position. She has a big job to bring discipline back into the ranks; to ensure our prisons are managed humanely and to prepare inmates for returning to society.
Like me, many of you will recognize the courage of the women of Fiji.
In early February at Seaqaqa, Virisila Silivere captured national attention with her extraordinary rescue of six passengers from a car sinking in floodwaters.
Swimming in the rising water Virisila brought to safety a mother, three sons and two men. The driver had screamed for help. The three boys were shaking trembling and crying.
She told The Fiji Times: “The currents were strong but I was determined to save them.”
Virisila, herself a mother, is a beacon of bravery. What an outstanding woman she is.
I have seen pictures of women from the interior of Viti Levu carrying their children through the waist-high fast-flowing waters of a river. It was the only way they could get them to school. That was the bravery and determination of mothers looking after the needs of their children.
When Parliament was in the grip of high drama on February 17th over certain statements by the Leader of the Opposition, two of your Government’s women MPs were at the frontline as members of the Parliamentary Privileges Committee.
Lenora Qereqeretabua, Deputy Speaker of the House and Assistant Minister for Housing and Local Government, is the Committee’s chair. Her colleague Lynda Tabuya, Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation, serves with her as a member.
The Opposition Leader had to be interviewed by the Committee and a decision made about whether he should be penalized for statements uttered.
It was a difficult and tense time. The nation was fixated on the fate of the Leader who, ultimately, was suspended from Parliament for three years.
Lenora and Lynda did not wilt under the pressure. They handled their responsibilities with discernment and skill.
Parliament has other newly-elected women who deserve our congratulations – Sashi Kiran, Assistant Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation; Alitia Bainivalu, Assistant Minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation, and Opposition Backbencher Premila Kumar.
We look to them all to make their contribution to the growth and prosperity of the nation through the workings of a fully democratic Parliament and effectively discharging their duties.
However we are falling far short of the number of women that should be sitting in the House. Our goal is for 30 per cent representation.
On February 24th the country embraced a woman of Fiji who had suffered for her beliefs in democracy and freedom.
Dr Padma Lal returned from Australia after a long, forced exile. She brought with her the ashes of her late husband Professor Brij Lal, who had also been denied entry to the country of his birth.
She knew Brij had wanted to return to his birthplace at Tabia, Labasa, for his final rites.
At the farewell ceremony for Professor Lal , Padma told with simplicity and power how she and her husband were locked out of Fiji. They were asked to apologise by the Fiji dictatorship for their stand in favour of democracy. But through the courage of their convictions they refused to abandon their beliefs. They paid the price.
There are three other women I wish to mention. Their stories come from the pages of The Fiji Times. Rina Wati creates and sells artificial flowers, Mohini Lata is a market vendor, Makitalena Vonokula just graduated from the Academy for Woman Entrepreneurs.
Their stories may appear ordinary but when they are woven into the tapestry of Fiji they become part of something much larger. There are many thousands like them.
It is the unfolding narrative of our country, a narrative that is far from finished. The women of Fiji must play an increasingly important part in it.
The Civil and Public Service, including the Judiciary, the Legislature and Disciplined Forces, are collectively by far the largest direct employer in Fiji. They have in total more than 34,000 people on their payrolls.
Women account for just under 50 per cent of these.
Recently the Public Service Commission advertised for the top ranking positions of Permanent Secretaries. The Commission is confident that open merit recruitment will see the appointment of women candidates.
It is an absolute priority to ensure there is no Civil Service discrimination against women and that they are represented at all levels of government.
The Ministry of Civil Service is encouraging all Ministries to celebrate International Women’s Day by showing support for women colleagues. To honour and recognize their contribution to the Civil Service, each Ministry will award an on-line scholarship for a Women and Leadership course.
We encourage women to take advantage of opportunities offered by Fiji’s development partners to enhance their leadership potential.
In the broader sense, the Government’s position is clear. We are committed to creating a better life for all women and girls.
Despite the advances made, there are still significant challenges in the private sector such as low and discriminatory pay.
A recent report by Professor Wadan Narsey for the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, disclosed that unfair and unjust treatment of women continues. They get less leisure time than men, for instance, and carry a disproportionate burden of household work.
These issues need to be addressed. We will be doing that with the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation taking the lead and working closely with civil society and the commercial sector.
The National Economic Summit in April has special agenda items for Women’s Empowerment and Women in Economic Development. Part of the summit will be devoted to topics involving the on-going digital revolution. This will offer an opportunity to debate and adopt initiatives positioning women to take full advantage of this. It is a key theme for International Women’s Day.
I emphasise that your government is committed to ensuring greater equality of access across society to opportunities, services and amenities.
There remains one area of national life involving women that brings shame to the nation. Fiji suffers from a deplorably high rate of domestic violence. Many women are regularly bashed at home by their husbands, or partners, often to the point of requiring medical treatment.
The perpetrators make victims of the physically weak and vulnerable and destroy their own families. This is a painful and difficult subject that should be dealt with by women and men together.
A Government plan of action on this is to be implemented from now through to 2028.
In our political doctrine for a new Fiji we are called specifically to bring this crisis to an end. The doctrine recognizes that love in all its forms is a mighty force for progress and change. It drives moral strength, purpose and conviction and willingness to deal with the most complex problems.
Motivated by this, we can stop the epidemic of brutality. We must come together honestly and openly, driven by the moral desire to right a great wrong.
Our country is at the threshold of great change. We have succeeded in ridding ourselves of the fear, threats and malice that reigned for 16 years.
Freedom is reborn in the land. We must entrench and strengthen it, so that it becomes a permanent pillar of our society.
The government and the people are taking on the task of rebuilding Fiji into a nation unified in its diversity. It will take time. Everyone has a part to play.
On this day, let us pledge that Fiji will ensure its women take their full place in our journey.
We must get rid of the obstacles the attitudes and the cruelties that confront them.
Let their intelligence, their compassion, their energy and dedication be unleashed for the nation as never before.