Finding Our Voices, Communicating our Peace – a Pacific Journey

Womens Movement in Fiji

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, Fiji


It was May 14, 1987 in Suva, Fiji Islands. The indicators of political dissent had been there since the April elections that brought in a new wave of politics, a shift in the political hierarchy. I had missed out on the opportunity to vote and I have to admit I was fairly oblivious to the intricate layers of politics where traditional governance structures merge with national politics, and race and religion, land and economic power are triggers of conflict.

But two weeks after my 21st birthday, as I was shown into the FM96 studio to commence broadcast training, the announcer on duty Natalie Edwards turned towards us and instead of welcoming me into the studio announced … 'Sam Thompson is reporting from parliament that there had been a military coup"

My heart sank.  I was trying to understand what that meant for the future, my future. There was no way that the radio training program would proceed as planned.

Beyond my own dilemmas, I began to see that there were many around me were also conflicted about the reason for the events of May 14th. Words like detention, curfew, and road checks became part of our daily conversation. Information was controlled and as a country whose main information platform was national radio, the shortwave radio became a luxury item to access news and information.

I communicated my anger writing an editorial piece for the Pacific YWCA newsletter that featured newspaper clippings about the military coup. A voice of political dissent was not acceptable as I learnt when I found myself briefly detained at the Nadi International Airport on my way to the World YWCA Council meeting.

A Small Voice

But I was a small voice amidst a multitude of human rights defenders and political activists including many women who protested the overthrow of democracy.

They faced far more serious intimidation and violence.

There were riots and looting.

A political deadlock resulted in a second coup on September 25, 1987. There were more controls enforced on the media. The political waves ebbed and flowed through my island home in the following years.The 1970 Constitution was revoked. Fiji was declared a republic. The Governor General became the President.

I learnt that governments can be interim as was the case from 1987 – 1992.

Civil society activists engaged in the process of calling for constitutional reforms.

My life evolved. I started a career in broadcasting, I became a mother.

We went to the polls in 1992 and 1994 including municipal elections.

By the 1999 general elections Fiji had a revised Constitution and political parties were able to campaign on television for the very first time. As the manager of a small production company I found myself meeting political leaders who wanted to reach a mass audience. At the same time, I was beginning to see the need to have more than commercial media platforms on radio and television to communicate with communities and more importantly women.

It was May 19, 2000. The indicators had been there since the 1999 election including in media reports. There had been protests against the government. There were rumors of “fake news” but not on the internet but through community meetings. 

I was watching all of this from a new vantage point. I had taken a sabbatical from mainstream media and had been elected as the Secretary of the National Council of Women Fiji a month earlier.

The news broke. The riots broke out. 

That day I walked home from the city accompanied by a friend's brother to ensure my safety.  I thought about the safety and security of my small children grateful of the small mercies in life that meant they were safe with their dad.

My friend from the YWCA Tupou stayed the night. It was our second coup together. We kept watch of the multiplex of news coverage that night – radio stations and now we also had a television service. The next day as sisters of the YWCA we had reached out through our local networks and resolved we would convene for peace, to call for the release of the hostages the compliances with the 1997 Constitution and rule of law. 

A statement was issued. The daily Peace Vigil began on May 21, 2000 at the Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral. 

Prayer and Action went together, throughout and beyond the 56-day hostage crisis. Women mobilized and engaged in dialogue and mediated with the trade union, private sector, Bose Levu Vakaturaga – the Great Council of Chief as well as the Military Council. Messages of solidarity resulted in the adoption of the Blue Ribbon, the color of our flag. And so, began the Blue Ribbon Peace Vigil campaign.

The Fiji Blue Campaign

The Fiji Blue campaign was a public campaign bringing together the women of the vigil with trade unions and the private sector.

Friends from women and civil society networks and allies shared our messages beyond the boundary’s thanks now to the internet! 

My father gave me a mobile phone to stay in touch. There were not many of us with mobile phones. There were no Tweets or Facebook Live. There was the landline - sometimes with solidarity messages, sometimes not as peaceful – with threats or someone berating me for speaking out. 

Some of us became known as the Vigil ‘aunties - friends and allies working around the curfew and power cuts. Wo’mentors provided analysis and a voice that strengthened our daily resolve.  The mothers and grandmothers who came daily to the vigil showed how we can work together across a political divide at a time of insecurity. The wives of the hostages spoke for the release of all held captive. Prayer and Action went together.

We spoke to the media not just for an end to the crisis but a series of Women's Action for Democracy and Peace - WAD'aP! recommendations. But the envoys sent by the UN and Commonwealth never came to speak to the women of the Blue Ribbon Peace Vigil

By the end of the 56-day hostage crisis a new pathway emerged. Not just to continue to "keep watch" but to proactively extend the outreach of the Blue Ribbon Peace Vigil and the recommendations of WA'DaP! It became linked to the timely adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (Women, Peace and Security).

Fiji had another interim government. Elections took place in 2001, and as women we began to speak about the values of leadership and our peace, security and development priorities.

UNSCR1325 shaped the way I thought and worked – a focus on participation for prevention.

It was December 5, 2006. The indicators of the rift between the military and the government had been very public.

We had reconvened the peace vigil and issued statements calling for the President of Fiji to mediate. We had spoken together as civil society of the need for a peaceful resolution of the impasse. But our peace was shattered again. Dissenters including women’s rights defenders bore the brunt of military violence. I thought about my role as a communicator.

What does non-violent communication mean? Women must be supported. They could not be invisible at a time when the country was in crisis. Women could not be marginalized but there was also a responsibility to protect, to ensure their safety and security. Community media processes were developed, and a human security approach was adopted.  

Where is the Peace if there is no human security?

What can empowerment through ICTs mean for women who still remain burdened because they have no electricity? Or, to listen to the radio, means being able to afford the batteries or having to negotiate with the men in the household or community, to be able to sit in on the family or communal listening?  Where is the peace if there is poverty of information and communication?

These are the questions I have grappled with when working to bridge the gap between the United Nations and women in rural communities in my country. Did it really matter when there is no piped clean water despite lots of running streams children still have no bridge to cross over to get to school? Where the roads are so bad that even three-ton trucks refuse to transport villagers to town with their goods during the rainy season and these roads are impassable and so during a medical emergency, it can lead to death of a woman or child?

The impact of climate change including intensifying disasters and their impact on the daily lives of Pacific women requires more than political commitments. The responses and solutions must ensure the diversity of women’s voices, experiences and expertise.

Where is the Peace if there is no personal, economic or political security?

These issues have relevance for considering ICTs and their role in women’s empowerment and gender equality; in building and sustaining peaceful communities, where freedom of expression means you access tools of communication to have your say without fear. 

Underlying these issues is the need to give due consideration to infrastructure issues when planning developments relating to new ICTs, ensuring that communities are able to contribute to local content development and production.  They must be empowered to communicate their peace and human security priorities. 

It is particularly important for women who are still struggling to take their rightful place as legitimate representatives of their communities to ensure that whatever technology and media forms are utilized, will meet the needs of women, the majority of whom are in rural communities, persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups. 

The efforts of the women’s media movement inspired what FemLINKPACIFIC is today. ICTs can and have enabled women to communicate their definitions of peace and security, whether it is talking into a tape recorder or being interviewed for community videos.

It has given rise to a media production process and the use of community radio to bring women into their own formal space of negotiations that supports learning, strategizing and communicating their demands for peace and security.  

But, women’s media, information and communication are more than just about having women heard, just as media advocacy is more than just about increasing the number of women in a newsroom.

More and more it is also about ensuring that the information as well as the way the information is delivered to women and young women in their communities at the time and in a form, which will make the best impact.

Women’s media networks have demonstrated that localizing the commitments such as UNSCR1325 can involve women and young women, including women with disabilities, in the development, production and distribution or delivery of their own media initiatives whether it is through the production of rural women’s interviews, staging community radio broadcasts, community videos and other media initiatives.  

Peace and security are not just concepts but lived realities where women remain sidelined from the decision-making processes from the international level to regional peace and security structures, and even within our own national development frameworks as well as at local or community level. 

Much of this marginalization is exacerbated by the patriarchy of “traditional” decision making structures, because in the previous and current political realities in our country, we remain an after-thought, outsiders, despite the promises made through the Beijing Platform for Action, through CEDAW, through UN SC resolution 1325, and in our constitution. 

No More Gaps

We are two years away from the 20th anniversary of UNSCR1325 and there remains a persistent information and digital divide between the urban and rural communities, between men and women, young and old, the disabled and able bodied as well as the global north and global south.

The Pacific Forum Boe Declaration adopted by the Pacific Forum Leaders meeting (2018) now formally expands the concept of security “human security, humanitarian assistance, prioritizing environmental security and regional cooperation in building resilience to disasters and climate change". I say formally because there have been human security and conflict prevention frameworks as well as reference groups on gender-based violence and the Pacific Regional Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security adopted between 2008 and 2012.

I really hope that UNSCR1325 and sister resolutions as well as UNSCR2250 on youth, peace and security will be integrated into the implementation to catalyze change by enabling women to articulate their realities, their visions and claiming their rightful place in decision making for equality, development and a just and sustainable peace. 

Today in Fiji, the blue ribbon may not be as visible today but remains a symbol of linking women together for Peace and Human Security by amplifying voice and solidarity despite the upheavals that continue, working across borders of power imposed by social, economic and political structures.  Together women continue to keep watch. Whatever the political climate, whatever the weather.

This story is from the Women, Peace and Security Global Polling project.