Fijian women fight for reproductive rights

·5-min read

In Fiji, the fight for reproductive and women's rights is a delicate - and deadly - balancing act.

Advocates talk of a "lifecycle of barriers" confronting women, while campaigners themselves face hurdles to spread health-focussed messages or find a listening ear in male-dominated governments.

It's a diplomatically challenging environment too, as Australia and New Zealand navigate foreign policy goals of improving maternal health and women's rights in the Pacific.

Fiji Women's Rights Movement chief executive Nalini Singh shared devastating statistics in an address at the Blue Pacific Village during the recent Pacific Islands Forum.

Two in every three women in Fiji will experience violence at the hands of a partner during their lifetime.

One in every four women were victims in the past 12 months.

"Gender-based violence is significantly high," Ms Singh told an audience including New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

The Blue Pacific Village was set up in Suva's lush bat-laden Thurston Gardens during the forum last week, with a stage and stalls, staffed by artists and organisations promoting wares and campaigns.

Among the many leaflets and signs, family violence messages dominate.

One booklet, picked up by several young girls, stands out in bright red.

Produced by the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre (FWCC), it is headlined "STOP RAPE" and bears a small logo in the corner which reads "supported by Australian Aid".

A major beneficiary of Australian and NZ funding, the FWCC is led by indefatigable coordinator and "proud passionate Pacific feminist" Shamima Ali.

A science teacher by profession, Ms Ali joined FWCC as a volunteer eight months after it was founded in 1984.

"I've been there since ever since," she told AAP.

Ms Ali's advocacy meets roadblocks in Fiji's cultural conservatism and the government's repressive streak.

Freedom House rates Fiji as "partly free", noting corruption and clamps on personal freedom among many concerns.

With a mandate to providing crisis support and furthering women's rights, the FWCC proceeds with caution.

"We do advocacy. Counselling. Working with men. Lobbying and community awareness," she said.

"We don't say it loudly out there but we are pro-choice ... and that's very hard.

"We are able to get into villages, into churches, into the faith-based organisations and I don't want to lose that.

"We're gently talking about women's reproductive health, reproductive rights ... that safe abortion should be available."

Abortion is legal only after rape or incest in Fiji, and even then "it is not easy".

"Backdoor abortions take place and they're costing a lot more now than they did," Ms Ali continues.

"So there are also home abortions. Coat-hanger types ... women drinking a whole lot of medicine.

"Women haemorrhage. Women get septicaemia. Women die.

"It's very hush-hush ... throughout the Pacific we've all got our traditional methods of abortion and some can be very dangerous. Women resort to that."

Ms Ali says even discussions about contraception, many forms of which are not readily available, are tough.

"Women (have) a preference for the boy child. They might have five girls and when the boy arrives, they can rest," she said.

"Adult women in relationships also resort to abortion because of that. They can't take care of all those children.

"And there's a lot of rapes. A lot. In this country, lots of people get pregnant from rapes. That is the way it is."

Advocates see education as central to changing the script, building healthier relationships, empowering women and tackling high teenage pregnancy rates.

Isikeli Vulavou, chief executive of the Pacific Sexual and Gender Diversity Network, says "Family Life Education", a UN-backed resource is taught in schools, but often discarded.

"The content is good. But it's not always delivered by teachers," he said.

"Some teachers used it to catch up on other subjects ... some feel uncomfortable teaching it because it clashes with their personal beliefs."

Ms Ali is a long-time critic of Frank Bainimarama's government, alleging corruption and failing to address women's concerns.

Therefore, she was a problem during the Pacific Islands Forum summit.

Despite FWCC receiving millions in NZ aid, Ms Ali was missing from Ms Ardern's event, even after being listed as a special guest.

Ms Ali declines to comment on the snub, but history explains her omission.

Invited to a 2019 dinner with the UN Secretary General, an interview she gave on the eve of the visit spooked Fiji authorities, and she was told an hour before the event she should not go.

And last month, despite FWCC's long association as an Australian aid partner, Ms Ali was overlooked for a function with Foreign Minister Penny Wong.

The missing and revoked invitations show the burden of advocacy in Fiji: outspoken voices aren't appreciated, either by Mr Bainimarama's government, or Australia and New Zealand leaders, seeking to maintain relationships with his administration.

"Of course for me to speak out is much more important (than invitations)," Ms Ali said.

"There are lots of subtle oppressions. This is what human rights defenders have to go through and particularly here.

"It's like, 'stick to your mandate. Stick to (helping) the women', like there's no place for women being political. For me, the women's movement is political."

And nowhere is politics more closed to women than the Pacific.

Just 13 per cent of MPs in Pacific parliaments are women. In Fiji it is almost 20 per cent, while in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, there are none.

Ms Singh believes "there's so much more we could be doing to have more women in leadership".

"Not only is that in the parliament, it begins from the home, from the community, in schools, in employment, every sphere," she said.

"We are facing a lifecycle of barriers and we need to be addressing those from the root causes from when we are girls to ageing women."

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