Bula Vinaka and good afternoon to you all.
And my best wishes for a happy 2016, which I am happy to see you starting with three new classrooms and new furniture and equipment.
This past week has proven to be a trying one because of the tropical cyclone and tropical depression we experienced. It caused me to postpone my visit to the North. These cyclones are a part of life in this part of the world, and we can only hope that we are spared major damage and loss of life when they occur. We also need to always be prepared. Of course, my Government will provide full assistance to all Fijians in the affected areas. 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 – including law enforcement agencies – for working around the clock to make sure that all Fijians are safe.
This is a very special day on my visit to Vanua Levu because today I visit three schools. This morning I presided over the opening of new building facilities at the Duavata Secondary School and the commissioning of a water purification project in Ravuka Village, and when I leave here I will travel the short distance to the Valebasoga Secondary School to open a new classroom block there. So 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.
I will leave office one day when my service as your Prime Minister is complete, and when that day comes, if anyone asks me what I was proudest of—what I would want my Government to be remembered for—I think I would say that I want to be known as the Prime Minister who made education free for all Fijians.
We came to government with the ideal of establishing one Fiji, where all citizens were equal regardless of ethnicity, religion or occupation, without regard to whether they lived in the capital or the most remote island community, and whether they were rich or poor.
And we quickly realized that education was the key to the future we wanted. If education in Fiji is not free, we as Fijians will never be truly free or equal. Education is the greatest equalizer. It is how we build a better meritocracy. It is the way we build the clever society we want to be. All our efforts to create opportunities through infrastructure and better health care will fall short if we don’t provide people the education to seize those opportunities and to take control of their families’ welfare.
So we freed families of the burden of payments—extra payments and special payment—to the schools. And we replaced that system with a system that allows governments to distribute grants to the schools. This puts all schools on a more equal basis because the resources available to children no longer depends on how much their parents can pay.
Today I am happy to dedicate one of the fruits of that policy —a new block building with 3 classrooms and new desks, chairs and teachers’ tables. It was made possible by a grant of nearly $90,000, and as you can see, the money was put to good use. The 60 students and 4 teachers who work so hard at this school deserve the best support we can offer. The right environment makes a big difference in the way children learn, and the right environment tells students and teachers alike that their fellow countrymen believe the work they are doing here is important.
Vunivutu Primary School has served this community since 1961. I’m sure many of the parents here today learned to read and do maths and understand the world at this school. And I am sure they are just as happy as I am to see this school grow. The improved facility is one part of that. 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.
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.
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 such actions. That is part of what we as a people must teach ourselves.
Now, I am proud to declare this new classroom building open and ready for these beautiful children and their dedicated teachers.