The Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation,
Your Excellency, the Honourable Minister for Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection of the Republic of Indonesia,
Honourable Ministers and Members of Parliament,
Your Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Distinguished Guests and Expo sponsors,
My Fellow Fijians,

Bula vinaka and a very Good Morning to you all.

The National Women’s Expo is a key initiative of my Government- To recognise and empower some of the most talented people in our national life – our women artisans.

I was extremely proud just over a year ago to be here to launch the first Expo. And I’m even more proud to be back today to launch the second. Because we have refined and improved both the selection process of the items being showcased here. And the assistance we are providing to enable Fijian women right across the nation to take part.

Last year, The National Women’s Expo was open to everyone, irrespective of the quality of their work. But now, only those artisans who make it through the four divisional craft shows can qualify to come to Suva for the national event. They have to earn their place here by meeting a set of standards laid down by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism and the Fiji Arts Council.

It’s a quality control process that ensures that only the best artisans and only the best handicrafts are featured at the 2015 National Women’s Expo. So over the next three days, you are seeing the very best that Fiji has to offer. And it is being showcased to local buyers and exporters looking for the very best. Items truly worthy of receiving the Fijian Crafted label of the Fijian Made brand of products and services we are taking to the world and on which much of our economic prosperity depends.

The National Women’s Expo is already gaining an international reputation. And as part of that, I’m delighted to welcome Indonesia’s Minister for Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection, Doctor Yohana Yambise. Your Excellency, we are honoured by your presence in Fiji. It is a clear sign not only of the growing importance of our relationship with Indonesia. It is also a sign of the great importance both our nations are placing on the empowerment and advancement of our women. Harnessing their talents. Encouraging them to express themselves artistically. Encouraging a culture of excellence and pride in their work. And giving them the means to market and sell the items they make to benefit themselves and their families.

Minister, I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that women are the backbone of our nations. They are our mothers, our nurturers, the trusted figures we turn to for assistance and advice, who we can rely on. The caregivers, the nurses, the custodians of our customs and traditional knowledge.

They are the glue that holds families together. Their opinions count. They deserve to be consulted. They deserve to be treated with respect. To be protected from violence and exploitation. And increasingly, they are asserting their economic strength, using their talents to earn incomes for themselves and their families. Gaining a bigger foothold in the workforce and reaching positions of influence and responsibility. Using their talents to make items that other people value, other people want. And that is what my Government is determined to encourage and facilitate.

More than anything else, today is a celebration of the achievements of Fijian women as we pay tribute to their skills and hard work. To all of you – 600 of the most talented of Fijian artisans – the nation salutes you. We salute you for the many hours of effort you have put in to produce your items. We salute you for the quality of those items. For their beauty and the unique way they represent our traditions and our culture. For being authentically Fijian. And we rededicate ourselves today to the task of helping you to capitalize on the value of your work. To link you to potential markets and income.

The theme of this year’s Expo says it all: “Connecting Women to the Markets: Make it happen”. And this is a truly national event. Of those 600 women who are here, 194 are from the Eastern Division of Fiji, 156 are from the Central Division, 130 are from the West and 120 are from the North.

For many of you, especially from maritime communities and more isolated parts of Fiji, this is your best opportunity of the year – a golden opportunity – to showcase your work. And I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to sponsor you all for the first time. Through the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism – with assistance from the United Nations Development Program – we have provided you with travel, accommodation, meals and a daily subsistence allowance. So no matter what your personal circumstances, you have been able to come to Suva to take part in this landmark event.
All the great strands of Fijian Made handicrafts are here. Woven products such as mats and baskets, masi, items made from shells or coconuts, household crafts, items of clothing – the best that Fiji has to offer all under one roof. At one site.

And the buyers are here – individuals, retail stores and potential exporters. We are linking you with them in a way – and on a scale – that has never been possible before, especially for women from isolated places. So I urge you all to get down to business. To do deals that are fair and reflect the value of these items – the best of which are among the best Fijian artifacts in the world.

My Fellow Fijians, the time to do business has never been better. As many of you know, we are in the throes of the longest running period of economic growth in Fijian history. The national pie – our economy – grew by 5.3 per cent last year. And that eventually means a bigger slice for everyone, especially if we can remain focused as a nation and enable that growth to continue. It certainly means that most of the big businesses in Fiji are doing well. So I urge them to err on the generous in their negotiations with our artisans and strike prices that are fair.

I want to remind the women of Fiji just how far we’ve come in empowering them and their families. Not only with specific initiatives like this one but with the free schooling we have provided for your children and our scholarships and tertiary loans. All of which have taken a considerable strain off household budgets and enabled families to direct their spending elsewhere.

Then there’s the socio-economic rights contained in our Constitution that we are steadily implementing as our economy picks up pace. The right to work for a just minimum wage, the right to economic participation, the right to adequate housing and sanitation, the right to adequate food and water, the right to health, the rights of children and the disabled, the right to a clean environment.

We now have a National Gender Policy that requires women to be treated equally at every level. And we have tightened our laws or introduced new ones to give Fijian women an unprecedented level of protection, including the first domestic violence laws in Fiji’s history.

Yet unfortunately, while we can change our laws, we can’t change attitudes so easily. And I share the concern of His Excellency, our President – expressed in his Fiji Day message – about how far we still need to go to address our nation’s flaws and weaknesses.

The incidence of domestic violence and especially violence against women is still far too high. It is, in fact, a national crisis. And so is the incidence of rape and child abuse in Fiji.
I’m told that there is now an average of one rape a day in Fiji filed with the courts. There are others that don’t proceed to prosecution even if they’re reported. And, of course, we can be sure that there are some rapes that go unreported in the first place. Covered up. The perpetrators avoiding justice. The victims suffering in silence.

As a Government, we’ve tried to do what we can. We removed the old Victorian rules for corroboration of rape – the need to go an extra mile to prove rape. No longer does a rape victim’s sexual history have any bearing on a case nor is bulubulu accepted to let rapists go free. Yet I’m sorry to say that the incidence of rape is still high because it is about basic attitudes and those attitudes haven’t changed.

I again want to say to the men of Fiji. Real men don’t hit women. They protect them. Real men don’t rape women. They respect a woman’s right to say no. And they certainly don’t abuse children, a heinous crime that warrants the strongest punishment.

I also want to say to the women of Fiji. The authorities have zero tolerance for domestic violence, rape and child abuse and so must you. It is not acceptable under any circumstances for your husband, partner or any male family member to beat you. It is not acceptable under any circumstances for you or any other women or children around you to be assaulted and abused in a sexual or any other way. And if it happens, it is your duty to report it to the police. Because only by adopting a position of zero tolerance can we have any hope as a nation of dealing adequately with this crisis.

As His Excellency the President so powerfully stated on the weekend: “We must put an end to the hypocrisy of a society that professes to be religious yet turns a blind eye to too many instances of ungodly behavior”.

I ask our nation’s women – the most precious members of Fijian society – to be at the forefront of getting our people to change their behavior. To be the eyes and ears of our society, watching and listening for instances of violence, rape and abuse and reporting them, while at the same time giving every assistance they can to the victims and encouraging them to come forward. We desperately need your assistance. For every woman’s sake. For every child’s sake.

Honourable Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen, My Fellow Fijians. For all our problems, this is a day to celebrate our achievements. And I urge you all to take full advantage of the opportunities this National Expo provides. Not only to showcase your work but to gain new skills through some of the workshops we are conducting on ways to improve the sale and marketing of your products.

A big vinaka vakalevu to everyone who has worked so hard behind the scenes to make this event a success – and especially the staff at the Ministry for Industry, Trade and Tourism and the Ministry for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation. Plus, of course, the UNDP and our valued sponsors.

It’s a great privilege for me to be here to meet as many of you as possible and to admire what your hands have produced. And I now have great pleasure in declaring the 2015 National Women’s Expo open.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.