Bula vinaka and a very good afternoon to you all.
It is a pleasure to participate in this important meeting and to speak with you today about a subject that I am very passionate about.
Improving the status of women in Fiji across the board has long been a priority for my government. Gender equality is guaranteed in our Constitution. And to make that a reality, government must find ways for women to take full advantage of the other rights that our Constitution guarantees to all citizens— including rights like education, health, economic participation and a clean environment. Everything that Government does should also empower and raise the status of women in our society.
We need to do this because traditional roles of women have been changing for a long time, yet the expectations of our society are only slowly catching up. In fact, we could say that women’s roles are not really changing at all; they are just expanding. Many more women work outside the home, in everything from wage work to artisanry to small business to professional careers, but they still end up having to fulfil all the responsibilities of the home—child bearing, shopping, cooking, cleaning and dealing with the requirements of the schools. They actually have two jobs, and a very long workday.
Last September, during the United Nations General Assembly, I attended the Global Leaders Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. I reported on our progress in changing laws, policy, practices and governance mechanisms to support women’s equality and to punish and prevent violence against women.
We may have a lot of work to do, but I believe we have begun to make a huge difference in the lives of women. And I believe we have established a strong legal and political foundation that we can build on.
Section 26 of the Constitution guarantees equality and prohibits unfair discrimination in ways that were previously unheard of in Fiji. It guarantees that no one will suffer unfair discrimination because of culture, social origin, sex, gender identity and expression, social or health status, religion, conscience, marital status or pregnancy. These unprecedented constitutional rights protect women in a comprehensive way—in the home, the workplace and before the courts. It strengthens women’s health, women’s education, and women’s economic opportunities.
Even before the new Constitution was adopted, we removed the archaic rules that required that the prosecution of rape had the additional burden of corroboration. This made it nearly impossible to convict a person of rape. This legal requirement was based on the old common law rational that when a woman says “no” she actually means “yes”.
We also amended our laws to recognise the rights of women in de facto relationships, in particular under the amended Family Law Act and new FNPF laws.
My government introduced Fiji’s first specific domestic violence law. It allows any person to apply for a restraining order against perpetrators of domestic violence. And it requires that those applications be treated with urgency at any time of the day. The police are legally obligated to enforce measures to promote the safety and well-being of victims of domestic violence, particularly women and children.
So we have tossed away or amended the laws that once offered women almost no protection.
We now monitor the enforcement of the Domestic Violence Decree more effectively, thanks to official cooperation between the National Women’s Machinery and the Fiji Police Force. We also seek to work with the respective non-governmental organisations. After all, we must collaborate to rid ourselves of this scourge. Not get in the blame game.
It is absolutely critical for the police to understand and be sensitive to the special dangers faced by women and the degrading nature of the crimes that they suffer. The police need to continue to develop their responsiveness and expertise in relation to crimes of sexual violence and abuse. Our ability to obtain convictions and eventually end the atmosphere of impunity that has existed around domestic violence and rape will greatly improve along with our forensic capabilities and the recruitment and advancement of more gender sensitive police officers.
I have said many times that adopting the proper laws and policies are only the beginning. Laws and policies are important in changing behaviour and creating awareness, but they don’t solve the problem by themselves. I am sure that all of us would rather end rape and domestic violence forever rather than send offenders to prison. Every case of rape and domestic violence that is tried in our courts represents a failure—a failure to stem this terrible problem in our society, a failure to change attitudes and behaviours, a failure to protect women.
This problem will only be resolved by changing our culture. It is a fact that violence against women represents what I like to call the ugly underbelly of our culture. We all know it. It has been with us for a long time, and it weakens us like an infected wound—slowly and progressively. Although as a society we surely lament it, I believe we have also tolerated it. Many people believe it is inevitable; it is the way things have always been. Men are beasts, the thinking goes, and from time to time they will act like beasts.
But I will not accept—and we as Fijians cannot accept—that one part of our population is condemned to live in a semi-savage state while another part is condemned to live in a state of terror. That parents must fear for their daughters when they leave the house. That husbands must fear for their wives when they are not together. That brothers must fear for their sisters when they leave the house. And that every woman must fear what danger lurks around the corner, or outside her home, or in her place of work.
This scourge—and it is a scourge—will only end when the man who beats his wife or partner is ashamed to show his face on the street or in the community. It will only end when friends and family turn their backs on the rapist. Shame is a powerful motivator in our society, and we must use it to stop this violence. We must teach candidly against all forms of violence toward women and children. We must teach it in our places of worship, in our schools, and in our communities. We must insist on a culture of equality and respect for women that encompasses the home, the workplace, the government, and the street.
I also believe that women’s economic empowerment has a strong role to play in ending violence against women. Women who are not economically dependent on an abusive husband are better able to take control of their situation.
But in a more general sense, elevating the status of women increases their own sense of worth and slowly changes the perception in society that women are somehow inferior—and that perception alone is an invitation to violence.
That is why we look to a growing economy to raise women’s status. Frankly, we cannot build the kind of modern, competitive economy we want without harnessing the energy, ambition and talent of women.
According to the 2015 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, in Fiji together with Colombia and the Philippines, are there are more female than male senior officials, managers and legislators. The ratio in Fiji is 51% to 49%.
I am very proud that today the Honourable Dr. Jiko Luveni, an accomplished dentist, is the Speaker of Parliament. Viniana Namosimalua is the Secretary General to Parliament. Susan Kiran Dayal is the Secretary to Cabinet. All of them hold these positions simultaneously. Of course, the Leader of Opposition is a woman too. Two Cabinet Ministers and two Assistant Ministers are women, and I think it is significant that two of those women—Minister for Lands and Mineral Resources, Mereseini Vuniwaqa and Assistant Minister for Local Government, Housing and Environment Lorna Eden—occupy positions that would traditionally be considered men’s portfolios. So we are breaking down those walls, eliminating the idea that women can take only the “caring” portfolios—like education, health, social welfare and women—but not the other portfolios.
I have been traveling the country distributing micro grants to small business owners, and I am impressed by the number of women entrepreneurs who are qualifying for those grants. In one round of grants to 10 districts, 90% of the recipients were women. And the ratio of women to men continues to be quite high. And we are also committed to long-term funding of the National Women’s Expo, to connect women entrepreneurs and artisans with domestic and overseas markets.
I am personally committed to making gender equality part of our culture, our identity and our national reputation. The Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation is taking the lead in this respect.
Every citizen can play a part by speaking out—not only to stop this physical violence, but also to end demeaning treatment of women and children, which is where much of this violence begins.
I know you have learned a great deal in this forum about the links between gender inequality and violence against women. Today, I am calling for unity on the issue of gender equality and the elimination of violence against women and children. What we do now will bear fruit in the lives of our daughters and granddaughters. As a father and grandfather, I want the women I care about to live a life of freedom, choice, adventure and achievement. And I want the same for all women in Fiji.
So let us make 2016 a year of leadership and a year of getting things done. Let us all commit to do what we can to make the implementation of our National Gender Policy a reality. This is the right thing to do for all women and children, and it is the right thing to do for the development of our great nation.
I want to thank everyone involved in organizing this dialogue and for inviting me to officially close the Parliamentarians Policy Dialogue.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.