A curious duality

“There is a duality that exists in Fijian society," Florence says. Women do hold leadership positions in formal workplaces. But at home, or in the traditional community dynamics they have grown up in, they quite naturally and comfortably surrender to their traditional roles and male leadership is predominant. At community levels, therefore, women tend to be excluded from key decision-making spaces.

Florence adds that when women move to non-traditional spaces like cities and are empowered in leadership roles, and thereafter go back to their traditional spaces, “they may not able to take their empowered leadership role and influence into those spaces, as those women are not necessarily seen as holding a responsible position.”

Transforming cultural spaces

The Pacific Centre for Peacebuilding (PCP), led by Florence, intervenes in some of these traditional spaces, helping to create and expand space for women to exert influence, especially in areas that affect them. PCP does this by supporting the culturally and traditionally dominant male leadership to be more inclusive of women’s voices at the community level. Under this programme, women also build their capacity and skills to identify issues that prevent them from exerting influence, learn how to process the identified issues and finally articulate those issues in decision-making spaces.

Florence says, “We have been successful in influencing male leaders on why it is important to have women’s voices included at the community level. In some cases, male leadership has been more accepting of diversity in decision-making when compared to others, as demonstrated by the inclusion of women in community decision-making bodies.”

This programme, however, has its challenges. It can be difficult to gain access to the traditional community structures which generally make decisions for women and minorities without their direct involvement.

The economic empowerment model

PCP also supports women’s agency and leadership in their communities through economic empowerment. PCP works with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce which has a special Enterprise Division, and together they provide training to women in economic development activities.

Florence explains, “The idea is that when women are generating and earning an income and are contributing to running a household or are contributing to a community project, others begin to notice and recognise their skills and capacities. The women are then respected for their income-earning and potential in society. This in turn leads to women being included and invited to decision-making spaces.”

"This leads to the women being perceived and recognised as empowered individuals in the community"

Although more indirect than lobbying traditional power holders for women’s inclusion, this approach is still effective in driving up inclusion and avoids some of the push back encountered through the former approach.

“This leads to the women being perceived and recognised as empowered individuals in the community and takes the conversation away from the sensitive and culturally-laden conversations of women and youth and their traditionally accepted roles,” Florence adds.

This project has yielded tangible results, with many women starting their own small businesses and taking leadership positions in the community.

Florence Swamy

Florence Swamy.

Building leadership through challenging conversations

Inter-ethnic divisions have been a cause of continuing tensions in Fiji. Primarily, there are two ethnicities, the iTaukei (indigenous Fijians) and those of Indian origin, the Indo-Fijians.

Florence notes that, “At a political level, conversations are always racially driven. Whereas at the individual level, people from both communities co-exist harmoniously.”

In this context, Florence and her team at PCP have been working with an Indo-Fijian community called Dramasi and in an Itaukei community called Korovou. In both communities, women received tailor-made training on peacebuilding and conflict resolution. They were then brought together for cross-community dialogue to explore how racial divides can be overcome by focusing on the challenges that both communities have in common.

'Women have begun to lead in a transformative manner'

For example, a Dramasi woman who may not have had access to water at her home would discuss the challenges around it with Itaukei women facing the same problem. Through a consideration of such common issues, space opens up for dialogue, empathy and understanding. The women gain understanding of each other, can take leadership on resolving an issue and identify how they can have their basic needs met without division and conflict.

Through these peacebuilding efforts, women have begun to lead in a transformative manner, changing narratives to avoid politicisation of their needs and conflicts between or within ethnic groups in the country.

Florence highlights that, “According to these women, it is the first time that they have had the opportunity to engage in this way on such issues. The conversation was not easy and were highly charged emotional encounters. However, they led to the creation of a Joint Multi-Ethnic Network.”

This Network functions because, if and when a specific issue emerges in the respective ethnic communities, the women representatives in the Network amplify and escalate the concern to decision-making and policymaking spaces. Therefore, this helps to take the conversations away from ethnicity. This Network has become a sustained outcome of this project.

Challenges and strategic approaches

In their work, PCP faces several significant challenges, the foremost being the patriarchal nature of society and the limited spaces available for women, particularly young women, to actively engage. Additionally, PCP grapples with resource constraints and the constant need to sustain their work while providing adequate support to empower the women they serve.

Another hurdle that PCP encounters is the task of addressing the emerging challenges within the communities they work with, which sometimes goes beyond their initial programme interventions. Ignoring the existing and emerging challenges is not an option, and PCP try to strike a delicate balance between their core projects and the pressing issues that arise within the communities.

Mobilising women for the organization’s projects presents another obstacle, as it often involves the challenge of convincing women to take time away from their daily paid work commitments. This is another balancing act, as PCP must ensure that the benefits of participation outweigh any potential disadvantages.

To overcome these challenges, Florence explains that PCP employs a strategic approach. They dedicate considerable effort to scoping and research to identify the best timing for interventions and to leverage resources available. PCP also works in collaborative arrangements to ensure that the communities have the best outcomes to the issues they raise.

Comfort zones and eternal vigilance

Women’s role as peacebuilders is amplified by their traditional social roles as wives, mothers, sisters, which enhances their abilities to act as “bridge-builders” and help cross divides with empathy.

Florence argues that this is the greatest strength for women peacebuilders. She goes one step further and explains that “when the conflict is eventually resolved, women become the foundations on which future conflicts are resolved and a platform where new relationships flourish.”

She adds, “It is in these terms that I see the value in the Joint Multi-Ethnic Platform that we created: this Network helps us identify the work done by different actors, carve out intersections that can prompt collaborative initiatives and devise strategies for stronger actions as women peacebuilders in Fiji. Important when we work in this formation is that we operate clusters at a thematic level so that each cluster is armed with the data to influence policy spaces as and when the need arises.”

Drawing from her journey as a women peacebuilder and leader, Florence shares invaluable lessons for other peacebuilders seeking to exercise empowered leadership. She advocates stepping beyond the confines of comfort zones, especially for women hailing from conservative backgrounds, and fostering the confidence required to effectively manage multifaceted roles.

Furthermore, she underscores the importance of not allowing cultural norms to constrain women’s potential, recognising the evolving dynamics that warrant the amplification of women’s voices.

Being informed of changing contexts and staying vigilant, she emphasises, are key in identifying unforeseen opportunities for intervention, which may manifest in the most unexpected of spaces. Remaining attuned to these can positively impact communities and personal growth.