TAVEUNI/WAKAYA, Fiji (WOMENSENEWS)– Salote Silibaravi paid no heed last month while this island nation’s new constitution was being debated and ratified in the capital, Suva.

“I’m not interested in reading the constitution,” the 41-year-old said with a warm laugh. “I can’t be bothered.”

Instead, she woke up at 4 a.m. as usual to make breakfast and get her four children ready for school. She then headed to what she calls her dream job, a waitress and masseuse at a luxury resort in Taveuni, the third largest of Fiji’s 330 or so islands.

Pauline Tasere also lives in Taveuni. While making her way back to her village Navakacoa in bare feet down a red dirt road, she said she hadn’t heard of the new document. The 39-year-old stay-at-home mother of six is busy, spending her days washing, cooking, fishing and watching the kids and her nights drinking kava, a common herbal drink.

Fiji’s recently-passed constitution has been hailed by the country’s military-backed regime as a stepping stone to democracy and free elections next year, and criticized by rights activists for, among other things, curtailing certain freedoms and granting immunity to those behind the country’s 2006 coup.

For women’s groups in Fiji, their concerns center on the constitution’s failure to expand women’s status in the government and the weak phrasing around gender discrimination.

But for many women here, particularly in the outer islands, the controversial document isn’t even on their radar, said Virisila Buadromo, executive director of Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, a feminist group based in Suva.

“The majority of women in this country are unaware of all the provisions in the constitution or the implications of it, more so in the outer islands,” Buadromo said in an email interview. “For many women in the outer islands, their first concern is their livelihoods and we all need to understand the linkages between our socio-economic status and having a gender-responsive constitution.”

Her organization is currently undertaking an analysis of the constitution, which will be available soon, and working on an education program for female voters.

‘Blueprint for Democracy’

The new constitution, Fiji’s fourth since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1970, replaces a charter the regime scrapped in 2009. It was drawn up by the military regime after it discarded a draft supplied by a specially selected constitutional committee.

Fiji’s interim prime minister, Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, described it as a “blueprint for democracy,” for its inclusion of such principles as an independent judiciary, a secular state and a range of civil, political and social-economic rights. Bainimarama, whose coup removed the government in 2006, has promised to hold elections by September 2014.

But Buadromo isn’t hopeful about those elections. “If the constitution-making process is anything to go by, women will still continue to be marginalized in the next elections.”

She said the new constitution doesn’t go far enough in encouraging women’s political participation.

“The Fiji Government Constitution does not implement any special measures to increase the number of women elected in parliament or holding office in other public bodies,” Buadromo said. “By contrast, the 2012 draft required that party lists include women in electable positions and that the composition of public bodies ‘reflect the regional, cultural and gender diversity of Fiji.'”

Dr. Jiko Luveni, the minister for women, social welfare and poverty alleviation, is the only woman among the current 10 ministers appointed to an interim cabinet by the state, according to the Fiji government’s website.

In 2006, the last time there was an election in the country, women made up eight of the 71 elected to the House of Representatives and five of the 32 members appointed by Senate, according to Fiji Women’s Rights Movement. Under the new constitution, the parliament will consist of 50 representatives elected every four years on the basis of one person, one vote.

An analysis of the constitution by the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum, a nongovernmental organization based in Suva, said this final version of the constitution will likely result in few women being elected. “With no constitutional requirement to include women candidates, and given Fiji’s context, political parties have been, are and likely will in the future be dominated by men. Women candidates will not do well under this system.”

Pauline Tasere
Pauline Tasere (left) and her friend Biri Kaminieli, in Taveuni, weren’t aware of the new Fijian constitution.

Credit: Juhie Bhatia

Unmet Human Rights Standards

Although the constitution provides some protections and rights for women, it doesn’t meet international human rights standards, said Jessica Evans, a senior researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C.

“Notably, the constitution prohibits violence within the family and workplace and also guarantees the right to reproductive health,” said Evans in an email interview. “The protection against gender-based and other discrimination is weakened because the constitution merely includes ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as prohibited grounds for ‘unfair’ discrimination in article 26. In order to strengthen constitutional safeguards on women’s rights, at a minimum, the constitution should unequivocally guarantee women’s rights to equality and non-discrimination. The inclusion of the term ‘unfair’ is not known in international law.”

She added that article 26 specifies protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, but limits this right in the case of marriage, adoption and inheritance.

Claude Michel Prevost, who runs Civa Fiji Pearls in Taveuni and has lived there since 2006, offered praise for the new document. He said requiring a minimum number of seats for women in parliament “would have opened the door for a minimum amount of seats for Indians, Fijians etc. They wanted to take race-gender out of the equation,” he said from his small wooden outpost in Vurevure bay, where his pearl farm is located, adding that this constitution is “very progressive for a very religious country and a very rural and chief-oriented country.”

Native Fijians make up 57 percent of the country’s population, while Indo-Fijians are 38 percent, according to the CIA. Unlike this constitution, the previous one reserved a minimum number of seats in the House of Representatives for both ethnic groups.

Women’s Rights Progress Made

Looking beyond the constitution, Prevost said he’s seen much progress on women’s issues since arriving in Taveuni, including greater accountability for domestic violence and more nongovernmental organizations focused on empowering women.

Silibaravi, who works at the Taveuni Island Resort and Spa, said she’s also seen more progress, as more women work outside the home today than in her mother’s generation. But she added that just because women are making money, they shouldn’t forget that in Fijian culture the husband is the head of the family. “No matter how hard we work, we still have to listen to our husbands,” she said during a work break. “Men being the head of the household, that idea is changing all over Fiji, but I don’t think it’s a good thing.”

Litea Waqa has lived in Wakaya, a privately owned island east of Fiji’s largest island, for 23 years and works as a secretary for the company Wakaya Limited. She said that while she’s seen only slight changes in women’s roles in her village, things are changing in Fiji and this progress is good enough. “Women are about the same as men, though there’s a little percent difference. But it’s okay, because women have been able to go up.”

Waqa said it’s women in the capital, cities and towns who are pushing for change. “In the outer islands and remote areas women aren’t so bothered about women’s rights,” she said. “Here it’s a Fijian community, so it’s more traditional; out there it’s multi-cultural and multi-racial. The outer communities and islands stick to what they’re used to.”

She said hadn’t seen or read the constitution, and wasn’t sure if it will take the country forward. “It’s been quite a while since a party has led the country,” she said, referring to the past seven years of military rule. “Hopefully it will be good. Since we are out here, we will probably just go with the flow.”