Meet the women leading the next wave of women’s rights in Fiji

April 13, 2016

ELF Graduates Lagakali Tavaiqia, Nandni Vandhana, Ashlyn Sheena Lal. Photo: Bronwyn Tilbury
ELF Graduates Lagakali Tavaiqia, Nandni Vandhana, Ashlyn Sheena Lal. Photo: Bronwyn Tilbury

“(We learned that) empowering others begins with empowering yourself. (The Emerging Leaders Forum) was a journey of liberation.” – Lagakali Tavaiqia, graduate of the Emerging Leaders Forum.

For young Fijian women like Lagakali Tavaiqia, playing an active role in the decisions that affect their community is often not a road easily taken.

Only 16% of Fiji’s current parliament is made up of women. Women who want to be leaders face conservative attitudes and few opportunities. This is especially true for young women like Lagakali, who face the additional challenge of age discrimination.

With the help of supporters like you, IWDA partners with Fiji Women’s Rights Movement to play a pivotal role in ensuring young women know the value of their voice through the Emerging Leaders Forum (ELF).

ELF is a year-long leadership program that focuses on strengthening leadership skills among young women aged 18-25. Graduates then take their newfound skills and confidence into their communities and implement their own initiatives for change.

Maryann Lockington, like Lagakali, is one of the graduates of the latest cycle of ELF. Maryann was already an up-and-coming member of Fiji’s youth parliament, but ELF helped ensure she can speak to and for the diverse voices of her community:

“In the youth parliament I’m exposed to people that are quite conservative, and being able to really communicate my views to them constructively without stepping on their toes too much… I learned that from ELF. It’s really helped me get across feminism as a thing for everyone, and there’s that idea that it’s not, (that) it’s just for women.”

Many past ELF graduates have gone on to do spectacular things for women’s rights. Betty Barkha is now on the board of a global women’s rights organisation, AWID. Roshika Deo ran as an independent candidate in the 2014 Fijian Elections. And Mei Mili is working directly with girls in her community to break the cycle of deeply entrenched gender inequality.

IWDA teamed up with award-winning documentary producer Media Stockade to capture the story of Mei as she mentors the next generation of girls to take part in the movement for equal representation in Fiji at every level of society.

In DANCE SELINA, Mei takes us with her as she utilises the skills gained in ELF and conducts workshops with girls in the rural village of Naqia. “I talk (to the girls) about gender equality, violence against women, and children’s rights,” she says.

Mei also uses the workshops to talk to the girls about the benefits of staying in school and getting an education:

“They don’t want to stay in the village. I ask if they want to be like me and they’re like ‘yeah’. So I say that’s why you need to go to school so you can finish your education. But in the village they would rather get the guys to go to school and tell the girls to stay at home.”

Mei attributes her ability to conduct these workshops to her participation in the ELF Program: “My eyes opened to gender inequality (during the ELF Program)… Gender equality is everybody’s business.”

Director of DANCE SELINA, Caro Macdonald, looks fondly on the time she spent with Mei:

“The entire process and meeting the young women working with FWRM was hugely inspirational. The feminist and LGBTQI movement and networks in Fiji are extremely progressive and I was very excited to have the opportunity to see the movements in action in Fiji, and learn about the history of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement. The workshops run by Mei were a microcosm of this exceptionalism – one young female leader working with a huge amount of support from her feminist community, to progress the lives of women at a grass roots level.”

DANCE SELINA is now available online for the first time here.

Dance Selina from IWDA on Vimeo.