She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
She says: “The main objective of femLINKpacific is to bring the stories of our women and their communities to the forefront, to help promote peace and reconciliation in multi-ethnic Fiji”.
Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls – Fiji
She works for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and the National Council of Women (NCW).
Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls (38) gained national prominence in Fiji by organizing, through the National Council of Women, a daily prayer vigil when government leaders were held hostage for 56 days during the 2000 coup. She now produces the monthly e-news bulletin “FemLINKpacific,” originally to give voice to women affected by the coup and a quarterly magazine “femTALK 1325″ covering women’s peace initiatives and post-conflict needs in the region and advocating for UN Security Council Resolution 1325 implementation. She also runs FemTALK 89.2FM, a monthly mobile women’s community radio service. Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls works to share Fiji women’s stories with the rest of society in the hope that her community-centered initiative, femLINKpacific, will not only increase awareness of critical social, political and economic issues, but also serve as a channel for promoting peace and national reconciliation. She takes a very hands-on approach in all aspects of the work, including developing and strengthening partnerships with other women’s organizations and like-minded NGO and civil society organizations.
Questions and Answers on Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls’s work:
(1) What was your main reason for getting involved in the issues you work on?
In 1986 I came back to Fiji from University in Auckland after becoming quite sick. My mother encouraged me to join the Lautoka Ywca. The Ywca shaped a lot of my experiences and beliefs. Also, at the time, Radio West, which used to do community radio, giving people in the West an opportunity to get on radio and discuss their issues, was based in Lautoka where we were living. Yaminiasi Gaunavou was running it and he taught me. So I had some early experience with community radio. By the time I joined the Fiji Broadcasting Commission (FBC) in 1988 as a copywriter producing commercials, FM 96 had just started up and FBC was getting competition and was under pressure to become more commercial and to corporatise. I began to see the difference between community radio and commercial radio. My mother was also always interested in getting women’s stories out and she used to tell me to go and talk to this or that person, and I would write stories for the Fiji Sun which Hari Gaunder would publish. I did free-lance writing for free!
(2) What kind of work did you begin with?
I attended the National Ywca’s biannual meeting in 1986 and met Tupou Vere, the general secretary, and we clicked and became good friends. The Ywca World Council was to take place in Phoenix, Arizona, in August 1987 and I was selected to join the Fiji Ywca delegation. In preparation for that my parents suggested that I go to the Ywca headquarters in Suva and spend some time learning about the issues the organisation worked on. So I did. I went through all the scrapbooks and through minutes of meetings and learned about the Fiji Ywca’s history, which was very interesting – I am very into history. I also went with Tupou to the Suva Market to interview women market vendors. They used to sleep on the pavement at the market until the Ywca allowed them to sleep in the Y gym. They paid 50 cents a night to the Y for this, but there were complaints to the Board about the state the women left the Y facilities in. The Suva City Council had no plans to assist the vendors. The vendors did not want to stay with relatives in Suva because they would have to make a financial contribution and they were not earning much. They chose to bring in their produce to market themselves because their husbands could not be trusted to bring the money home – their men would go across the road to Metropole Hotel bar afterwards. I learned a lot about the reality of women’s lives from this.
Then on 14 May 1987, three months before the Ywca World Council, I had a job interview with Fiji Broadcasting Commission. Kevin Thomas had just directed me into the studio to join Natalie Edwards, when Natalie said “Sam Thompson is on the line from Parliament – he says there has been a coup!” I remember thinking, “There goes my job.” And of course there was no job – everything was stalled. I spent the first night after the coup at the Pacific Ywca, with Tupou Vere and others. There was a division in the Fiji Ywca: some of the leaders sympathized with the Taukei Movement (which organised the destablization campaign leading to the coup), while others were very opposed to the coup. I was angry about the military takeover. I saw it as a human rights violation. Fortunately, Salamo Fulivai of the Pacific Ywca provided leadership and direction. She sat the general secretary down and asked her, “As general secretary of the Ywca, is this what you should be doing?” The World Ywca was by then waiting for the Fiji Ywca to say something about the coup. It was the first military coup in the Pacific and Fiji had always been considered the stable hub of the Pacific.
I helped produce an issue of Voice Blong Meri – a news-clippings issue – on the military coup. It included the infamous letter from Adi Finau Tabakaucoro (then President of the Fiji Ywca) saying that democracy was a “foreign flower” in Fiji. I wrote a cover story for the issue, saying what stand the Ywca should take. We included a poem by Alefina Vuki and Ian Rolls (my husband) did a sketch of a woman’s face and hand and barbed wire to go with the poem. We produced it in time for the Ywca World Council, left a lot of copies at the Suva office, and took the rest with us, giving some to other Pacific delegates to carry when we met up with them in Nadi. I was also holding copies of the Back to Early May petition, which called for a return to democracy.
I was stopped at the airport security checks and then all of us were taken to the airport police station. The others were released but my passport was withheld and I was taken from the airport to Namaka Police Station. I found Alefina being held there. We were each told to sign a statement, a general confession that we were working against the “government”, which we did because we wanted to be able to leave the country. Luckily they held the plane for us. My mother was at the time working for Air Terminal Services Limited, which managed ground handling operations at Nadi Airport and so we were able to travel to the World Council meeting. I remember being angry about the people in the Y. There was a big division in the organization and at the World Council meeting it was very apparent. When the 2000 coup happened, I saw again how conflict divides organizations. I do not think the Fiji Ywca ever really recovered from what happened then. I myself have never gone back to discuss what we went through in 1987, to discuss whether the Y was being used for a political agenda, and why. There were a lot of Indo-Fijian women who left the Ywca after the 1987 coup. I think the leadership in an organization like the Y should stand firm on its principles: it is not enough to just hold prayer meetings.
(3) You work on different levels now: local government, community, national and international. What led you to adopt these new levels of working?
In response to the illegal overthrow of the Peoples’ Coalition Government on 19 May 2000, in my capacity as Secretary of the National Council of Women of Fiji, I organised and co-ordinated the NCW’s peace and democracy initiatives. This included a daily peace vigil, and producing and disseminating media statements and action alerts to local and international media. It was national level work, but we were linking with international media.
My mobile community radio work is community level work. I use community radio to get women to talk about themselves and their issues, and to enable them to understand the media and how it works. They say who they are, and where they are from, and they are encouraged to tell their story. To get good broadcasts, the women have to have some training, and so we have begun to do this, using story-telling. We run three-day consultation / workshops; we have had three of these so far. The women are encouraged to write their stories and I read them back to them. One of the women, Kalesi (20), who is visually impaired, painstakingly wrote out her script and read it herself. It did not matter that she stutters: this is women’s radio, where everyone’s voice matters. We also had Leona who inspired our first consultation. She is hearing-impaired and cannot access radio as we can, so we can be the channels for her communication. I see this work as giving voice to the voiceless and providing information to the country that the mainstream media cannot or will not carry. For this year’s 16 days of activism on Violence against Women, I am focusing on the theme of sitting down and doing things for ourselves.
The work I am doing around implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325 (Women Peace and Security) is regional level work. FemTALK 1325 is a regional magazine providing a voice for women and peace initiatives in the Pacific and building awareness for Resolution 1325 implementation in the region. With the South Pacific Community’s Women’s Bureau, we were commissioned by Unifem Pacific, in partnership with the Bougainville Provincial Council for Women and the Women, Peace and Security Committee, to document the experiences of women in Bougainville and I conducted interviews for audio and print media. Our visit highlighted how places like Bougainville become invisible in world news once there is a ceasefire, and how reconstruction efforts do not make news. An issue of Fem’TALK 1325 was dedicated to the Bougainville peacebuilding and reconstruction effort with an emphasis on the seven objectives of 1325.
Resolution 1325 is important because it represents the highest level of recognition of the different roles that women play and it is a practical tool for gender equality in peace keeping. It has particular relevance for Fiji which sends peacekeepers abroad. When our male peacekeepers go in, how are they going to relate to the 50 per cent of people who are women? It provides a reality check for actual situations of conflict. I would also like to see it being used for conflict prevention. The UN Secretary General has an obligation to file a report every four years and Fiji was supposed to report on our implementation of the Resolution last year but did not. None of the Pacific Island countries have filed a report as yet. The need for advocacy across the region is clear, especially as government national machineries on women are disconnected from Foreign Affairs ministries. We have to strengthen ourselves to enable us to negotiate at that level.
(4) What are some of the strategies you use on these different levels, and why have you adopted them?
Although I am working in community media, I keep close contact with mainstream media and send FemTALK 1352 to women working in mainstream media for their background information. I also post our e-newsletters to mainstream media editors. Sometimes our stuff gets used. There is a lot of pressure on those who work in the mainstream to produce in a certain way; they have their priorities and are dealing with what they think the public demands.
(5) What are the strengths and weaknesses of your approach?
I have been able to use my experience in working with mainstream media, particularly in pre-production work, working with young talent, and explaining what we do in my community media work. Community radio is participatory: it has come out of the mainstream, but it is transformative.
(6) What have you found to be the most challenging or difficult obstacles to making the changes you consider necessary?
One of them is urban: educated middle-class women not speaking out against injustice. I was appalled at the 7th Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers’ meeting that the issue of displaced Indo-Fijian women was not raised at all. I felt that some of the older Fiji women who were there were in a position to speak out but they did not.
At Navua, at the Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Act (Alta) Resettlement area, at Vakabalea, we went to record stories with Indo-Fijian women for a program we were doing on HIV/Aids. We got information on where the women had come from and what stories they wanted to tell. They were older women. Some of them got the mike and then started to cry. They talked about the state of the land when they arrived,how the $10,000 resettlement money had been insignificant, how the floods had come and washed away the dalo they had planted. The stories were heart-wrenching. Some had moved there from the West and some from Labasa in the North.
We learned that the two groups spoke different dialects of Fiji Hindi, and this broke down barriers with the Fijian women there who thought only Fijians spoke in different dialects. Indo-Fijians were suddenly not seen as a homogeneous group. One woman said that after the newcomers arrived, there were a lot of problems and she talked about younger men hanging around. She said she noticed far more aimless, displaced Indo-Fijian men than was ever evident before. Navua does not have much of an economy: there were no jobs available, although there are hotels being built in the area. We heard that families were sending young men to work as prostitutes. There have been other reports of young girls engaging in prostitution to support their families and the cost of their education. Save the Children has reported this. I am sick of the way poverty is denied and ignored by the authorities in Fiji.
I have always struggled with what it means to be a Christian. My father was the son of a convert and my mother, who became a Christian when she was a student at Dudley High School, is a strong Christian. I always felt the Ywca was an organization I would fit into and I did. But we need to talk about the C in the Ywca. Prayers and fasting and praying for everything to go right, without working for change and demanding answers from our government, or from the National Security Council, seem to me to be all wrong. There also seems to be this mentality that there are a chosen few to pray for, and anyone outside of this category is ignored.
I also feel the current mainstream media in Fiji are irresponsible. They ake a lot of mischief and this is very dangerous. It sets the agenda and provides an inaccurate analysis of what is going on – for instance in respect of the relationship between the Military Commander and the Government – and represents things as a conflict. The public is not privy to all the information on the matter.
(7) Please describe the different roles you play, not only in your formal job but more broadly in your life.
I am the mother of two children, Albert, who turns 16 this year, and Sian, who will be turning 13. Women risk losing their children when they leave a marriage. The authorities make judgments about women. I felt I could not really be a good mother living under stress, and I needed time to heal. When I had to explain the importance of the Family Law Bill and its provision of “no-fault” grounds for divorce to an affiliate of the National Council of Women, I told my own story. My children were protected in 2000 because their father was working with the South Pacific Commission. I would not want to pretend that I am a normal mother. I used to worry about preparing for my children’s visits, but then I came to see that it was more important to simply enjoy them, and to communicate with them. Communication has always been important to me, at the personal level and at the community level. I think it is very important to be honest in communicating with children. I also believe it is important to teach male children to express themselves, to learn how to express emotion positively.
(8) Please describe a personal struggle that you have overcome, because this can help others in similar situations.
When I went back to work for FBC, they were corporatizing and trying to totally transform the organization in six months. I was dubbed “the feminist” and talked about around the grog bowl. If you were a woman and you spoke up, you were seen as aggressive; you were supposed to conform to a certain image. We were being made to follow a certain format, which was the Australian model of public sector reform, and deregulation was resulting in the community losing space or airtime on radio. We had to first work out where the advetisements went: these were now the most important item. Airtime for anything else was decided after that.
It was the same with the newspapers: marking out the ads was done first; the rest was then given over to copy. So the new model of media was squeezing out copy. Radio is now charging NGOs for airtime. I proposed a really good program for International Women’s Day 2003, for the mainstream media, but the response was “women are not commercially viable”. This is what led me to do “suitcase radio”, using a transmitter in a suitcase. Suitcase radios were pioneered by Unesco. Mosese Waqa (of Fiji I Care and the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum) initially got me thinking about doing it in 2000. I had just started FemLINK and was also working towards video-documenting women’s stories. I eventually went ahead and bought a transmitter. I paid $1,237 for a license under the Telecommunications Act, and began transmitting. From the city centre, using 60-80 watts, we reach all of inner Suva. We get the word out via our networks. I rely on women’s networks for my community media work. There are several very good networks, including those of the National Council of Women and the Soqosoqo Vakamarama.
(9) Where do you find emotional and spiritual support?
My parents were the primary influences in my life. They shaped my media work, my NGO work and my politics. My children are a source of strength and a reminder of where I am and what my role as a mother is. What keeps me going are the stories of the women I talk to. My work is a source of emotional and spiritual support. I have been on my own since 10 October 1995. In fact I received an Independence Medal from the Fiji Government the same day: it was very symbolic! (Read all this on this 1000peacewomen page).
femLINKpacific in french;