Bula Vinaka and good afternoon to you all. And my best wishes for a happy 2016.

Unfortunately, Tropical Cyclone Ula ushered in the New Year for us, and although we will certainly have to repair some damage and help some people who were affected, Fiji was spared serious widespread damage, and I had to defer my trip to the North.

We also need to always be prepared for these tropical storms, which now can happen even outside the traditional season. I want to thank you all for making your preparations and listening to the advice and instructions of our emergency response authorities. And I wish to thank those agencies- and law enforcement agencies—for working around the clock to make sure that all Fijians are safe.

Today I have visited three schools in Vanua Levu. I have opened new facilities at the Duavata Secondary School, the Vunivutu Primary School, and now here at the Valebasoga Primary School. I hope you are proud of this new facility. We are very busy here in Vanua Levu improving the quality of life and the quality of education. And there is a good reason why these schools are so special to me.

My Government’s philosophy is of One Fiji, where all citizens are equal. Your religion, your ethnicity, your occupation, your social status or whether you live in the capital or the most remote island should not matter.

But we realised quickly that to have a truly equal society, we must commit ourselves to equal education. Education is the key to the future we want for ourselves. Fijians will never be truly free or equal if we don’t guarantee a quality education to every child in Fiji. Education is the way we harness everyone’s potential. It is how we guarantee that a person can achieve anything he or she wants based on the character and drive and guts they have within them. All our efforts to create opportunities through a better economy and better infrastructure if our people aren’t prepared to take advantage of them—and that requires education.

When we made education truly free and ended the practice of schools requiring different kinds of payments from parents, we ensured that every child has equal access to quality education.
Today I am happy to dedicate a new, two-storey block building to support the 110 students of this school and their dedicated teachers. The total cost of this project was just shy of $160,000, funded through my office. The building has wiring to provide proper lighting and accommodate the electronics that are becoming essential to education, new desks and equipment, and an environment that helps all our students here learn better. This is what they deserve. We owe them and ourselves as a nation a proper place for learning. And providing the right environment tells students and teachers alike that their fellow countrymen believe the work they are doing here is important.

We have made good on our promise to replace the classrooms that were burned only a few years ago. Losing your schoolrooms was a tragedy for you. But today, you have a school that is bigger, better and more modern.

We are investing in our school facilities throughout the country. We want to have the best possible teachers throughout the country to inspire our children, better facilities for our children to learn in, and better equipment and other educational materials for our children. So we are supporting our teachers with training and incentives, we are working in partnership with the schools and communities to give them what they need, and we are working with experts to improve the curriculum and the resources available to our children and teachers.

Free education is what I am extremely proud of, because, as I have said, all our efforts at equality will come to nought if we don’t give our children an equal chance in life by investing as a nation and as a people in their education.

My Government has made equality a basic Fijian value—equality among us as people, equality no matter where we live or what we do, and equality between men and women.

Now I would like to say a few words to the students here and their parents. You students are almost grown up, and you are all classmates and friends—boys and girls together. I want the boys to remember now and as you grow older that these girls are your sisters, your neighbours and your friends. You will get married someday and have a family, and then you will know what it is like to have a partner in life—one who will share your burdens, one who will give you children and raise them with you, one who will build a life with you. And that will be a wonderful thing.

Always respect each other. Always remember that boys and girls—and men and women—are equal. They are equally precious to God and equal under the laws of Fiji. We all deserve respect because we are all God’s creation, God’s children. God gave us all talent and intelligence, and we need to respect each other for that and learn from each other. And be kind to each other.

I say this because there are people in this country—and in other countries—who do not respect women and children. We must set the proper example for our sons and daughters. Teach them by example to be kind, to be gentle, and to be caring. Teach them to use their strength for good, and never, never to be violent toward the women and children in their lives. This is as much a part of education for life as anything you will learn in school.

And children, you have a right to be respected, and you should insist on it—to be respected in your person, to be respected for your intelligence and your talent, and to be respected in what you wish for yourself and your future.

We have a problem in Fiji with domestic violence and violence against women and children, and we must face it if we are to stop it. We must teach our children the right way. And we must rain down shame on the abusers and rapists and those who even think of committing such crimes so that they know that we condemn what they do. That is part of what we as a people must teach ourselves.

I am proud of the students I see before me—young men and women, really—and I am optimistic about what they will accomplish in life. And I am proud to declare this new classroom building open and ready for teaching and learning.

Thank you and Vinaka Vakalevu.