One of a dozen or so grassroots activists who have flown in to bring firsthand expertise, Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls has travelled twenty hours from Fiji to Sussex for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office's historic conference on UN Resolution 1325 for women's participation in conflict resolution and decision-making – the first event of its kind the Foreign Office has hosted on gender issues. Currently secretary of Fiji's National Council of Women, Sharon has worked with many organisations over the years, to include women in Fiji's political life and tap their contribution to peace.
She founded the women's media NGO femLINKpacific to ensure women's voices are heard. Admired as one of the best information channels in the Pacific, femLINKpacific emerged out of peace work during Fiji's second political coup, and foregrounds women's stories and gender issues arising from the crisis.
Last week's conference on UN Resolution 1325 was the 816th Wilton Park Conference, organised in co-operation with the UK Government’s Global Conflict Prevention Pool, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Canadian International Development Agency, and in partnership with Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS).
Their "suitcase radio" project, a mobile radio station, takes radio to women in Fijian communities. "Everyone has their own contribution to make, and we bring in the communication aspect. We work with a focus group of around twenty women at any one time, documenting their stories. They then take us into their communities so that we can talk to more people, collect more women's stories, and capture their issues and their development priorities."
Her radio career began with community work in 1986, but ten years later public sector reform and corporatisation had handed power to advertisers to dictate where radio went. "Radio is so critical for our communities on the islands, but there was a total disconnection. People say, 'Oh, but there's talk-back radio!' But if you are a woman living on an island far removed from the capital city, you can't afford that extra charge on your telephone bill."
Such disconnects can have profound political consequences. She points to a recent Global Media Monitoring report which demonstrated how women are stereotyped as victims of conflict, creating difficulties for women trying to enter the decision-making process. "In Fiji, when we tried to dialogue around the National Security Defence Review, the members of the Committee we went to speak to thought we were coming to speak about domestic violence! People shut us up in those closets."
She welcomes the Wilton Park conference as an opportunity to 'get more strategic' about implementing 1325. "It is a chance to look at who is responsible for 1325, within the UN system. How do we make our governments, all of whom signed up to the Security Council resolution, more accountable in the implementation?"
Fiji's experience shows that not enough women know about 1325, and that despite the national commitment to 1325, it is hard gaining support from the security sector, home affairs, and foreign affairs. "Within the government machinery, they do not seem to take their own women's machinery seriously."
Women's networks abroad have offered vital support. The International Women's Tribune Center introduced Sharon to Resolution 1325 the year it was passed and immediately she saw how it could provide invaluable content and shape her media work. The suitcase radio project began in 2004 and has concentrated on community empowerment, on the basis that unless communities – particularly women in the under-represented rural communities – are given a voice, it will be impossible to persuade those with power at the national level that they are capable of participating in formal decision-making. She emphasises that they are not a social service deliverer. "But if you are looking for something to be done – we can use our networks to try and get something for you. If you are a sixty year old woman, or a single mother in a Fijian village being asked for the first time in your life what do you think? Or, what do you want from your government? – this is an important process."
Getting government to listen has been a struggle. Fiji's government has tended to initiate policies based on ethnicity rather than development needs. In this context, Sharon explains, "what we can do is to ensure that when we bring women together, or do a broadcast, we have a racial mix. We bring together indigenous Fijian women and Indian women, so they can dialogue at that community level in a safe space. The race card has been used for so long that the women we contact often think that they are all alone – and that it is only their problem."
This article is part of the openDemocracy debate "Resolution 1325: does it make any difference?"
For her, the Fijian experience illustrates a key message of the conference. Women generally mobilise for peace from the outset of conflict, but in Fiji – unlike East Timor – no one resourced women to come together across divides and discuss their issues in the conflict in order to resolve those issues as women, so as to engage more effectively in the national process. "In East Timor, women mobilised and they got their Women's Congress. But not in Fiji or in the Solomons. In Bougainville – they did meet – but on each side of the conflict, not together. So all the different ideas and political perspectives and experiences – women are not all the same as we know! – prevent us from having a unified movement."
She cites opposition from conservative women in the mainstream peace movement to the inclusion of the 1325 perspective in their response to Fiji's Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill introduced in 2005. "Some were really uncomfortable about working within a human rights framework or saying openly that this was what we were doing. Of course we have some very strong women human rights activists – which is great! But we cannot afford to leave these more conservative women out of the picture. In femLINK we take the middle-ground approach. We want to create the groundswell of women who want progress, but that means working with women at their pace, given all their multiple responsibilities."
She also stresses the need to educate women in the political process. "We all want to see women in politics – donors talk about it and so does anyone interested in good governance. But how do we ensure that there is adequate 'women in politics' training? When we have it in Fiji it is sporadic. We say, if you are interested in involving women in the political mainstream don't just give us one-off training. We need to be sustained and supported. Budget for two sets of elections, because often these women are still in vulnerable situations as a result of this work, and you need back-up and contingency planning anyway."
Political parties themselves need to be involved in training, to democratise their procedures. "In Fiji we have a clear example of this, where men will sit around the grog-bowl and discuss politics. This is not exactly women-friendly." Mechanisms range from the choice of meeting times to affirmative action, from reserved seats in parliament to what sort of quota system parties will contemplate to bring women into leadership positions. Without this kind of attention, she believes, "politics will remain male-dominated for the foreseeable future".