In a village by the deep blue waters of Natewa Bay, a loving mother and father sowed the seed of equality in their home.
Mereseini Rakuita grew up playing in the ocean, collecting firewood and coconuts, and eating pawpaw and oranges fresh from the plantation.
“Growing up in a coastal community, I got to see on a daily basis how my mum and aunts and grandmothers would go out to the shore to put food on the table.”
“My mother grew up in a setting with clearly demarcated gender roles, but was applying gender equality principles without me realising at the time. She’d make sure that if I wash my dishes, my brothers do too; if one of us is late home, girl or boy, your food is kept; you mess up, you get a telling off just like your brothers – you don’t get your hair cut off just because you’re a girl.”
This early demonstration of equality in the home despite a prevailing patriarchal culture, ingrained a standard of behaviour that has guided Mereseini’s life journey.
“A lot of times we undervalue our upbringing and how that shapes the person that you become later on in life – the roles that you take up and how that upbringing impacts on how you see things at work.”
From the seaside, the family moved around the country as civil servants often do – from the Northern Island of Fiji, Vanua Levu, to the Western Division and then to the capital city.
“I spent a few years in different towns around Fiji and that gave me an opportunity to befriend children from other cultures – giving me an insight on the different circumstances and lived experiences of different families that shaped my thinking around issues that I got to deal with as an adult. I had a great upbringing, with great parents who taught me the value of hard work, of commitment, and of achieving the things you put your mind to. But also empathy, compassion and basic human decency that’s needed in every place that we serve.”
And service was indeed her guiding star – after finishing legal studies, there was no question of where to next.
“My father used to take me to his office and as a little girl, I’d walk in and tell myself ‘I want to work in an office like this’. I didn’t know what work I wanted to do – but moving from town to town and following my dad around communities really inspired me to venture into the public sector to serve people.”
Mereseini joined the ranks of the civil service on the precipice of change. After joining, many senior staff were retiring and leaving positions open to younger civil servants to take up leadership.
“Many of my mentors retired; opening a window of opportunity for me and my colleagues. As a young woman lawyer being promoted to a senior position made me realise I had the capacity to perform the role, but I may not necessarily have had the opportunity otherwise. With capacities, it doesn’t have to do with gender or age – but back in my early civil service days my workplace was a boy’s club and getting into that space wasn’t easy.”
The issue, she says, was not a malicious one. It was, simply, gender blindness.
“They’re all good people. I had great mentors who were men and women who taught me how to write a good legal opinion, but nobody was thinking about gender equality. No one was thinking about the impact of the gender blindness on policy, procedure or infrastructure.”
This is part and parcel of Mereseini’s motivation to keep moving forward – from civil service to politics and now the Pacific Community (SPC) to make a change.
As Principal Strategic Lead – Pacific Women, Mereseini stands shoulder-to-shoulder within the executive team within SPC. Reporting directly to the Director General, Dr Stuart Minchin, to elevate the importance of gender equality in the work of the whole organisation.
“SPC is spearheading some great initiatives.”
“The Women in Leadership programme is looking at women in the workplace; both for the professional setting but also considering the unpaid care economy and its impact on deliverables at work.”
When considering equality in the workplace, Mereseini reflected on her own experience as a working mother.
“My three children are my greatest achievement. My youngest is six years old. I had him when I was a government minister. I could bring the baby to the office and breastfeed during the day.”
Acknowledging a level of privilege, she’s encouraged by recent developments at SPC like a creche for the Nabua Campus in Fiji. “I think every organisation should look into what they’re doing to support women, including those who may not yet be at a senior level – and I’m glad to see SPC leading the way on this.”
Alongside the ‘internal’ work, the organisation is making great strides in advancing gender equality in sectors like fisheries.
Mereseini knows the pressures of governments to meet their own gender equality commitments – she held the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation portfolio and travelled to Geneva as head of the delegation for the 69th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2018. In preparation for the questions from the Committee, she reviewed the available data to get a clear picture of the situation of women and girls in the country.
Preparing for CEDAW was a ‘light bulb’ moment that cemented her lifelong commitment to gender equality in her career. The data confirmed and quantified vast gender disparities, highlighting the significant volume of work needed to address gender inequalities.
“Looking at the statistics on labour force participation of women and gender-based violence really, really showed the amount of work and the type of work that had to be done. We could see the sectors that are ‘traditionally male oriented’ and overlook the contribution and role of women, like fisheries.”
For example, Pacific women comprise 70–90 per cent of the tuna processing force but continue to face barriers to safety, transportation, managing the burden of unpaid care work in the home, and limited skills development and promotional activities.
“By producing the gender disaggregated data and tools, it gives us the insight to further support Pacific Island Countries and Territories to tailor their policies accordingly – something that SPC has been doing for decades.”
“For those working on the ground, there has been the development of tools and resources to support tailored application of gender as well as increased training facilitated through the Fisheries, Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems (FAME) and Human Rights and Social Development (HRSD) divisions to mainstream gender in the policy and programming work of national fisheries agencies.”
“Through FAME, there has also been a growing body of research on gender and fisheries through country assessments as well as pre-harvest and post-harvest fishing activities. The work of the latter unearthed the volume of work that women are doing that really solidifies the kind of work that I would see the women back home in Natewa Bay doing; they’re venturing into new roles in the harvesting, value-adding and marketing space and breaking resistant gender barriers. So, I’m also glad to see the FAME Aquaculture team supporting the women oyster fishers in the Rewa River Delta in Fiji, and enabling their greater market access and training to address health and safety aspects for the safe consumption of wild oysters.”
These initiatives are bringing to life the parallel work on strategies like the recent and first Pacific Framework for Action on scaling-up Community-based Fisheries Management (2021) and a key guiding regional fisheries instrument ‘A new song for coastal fisheries – pathways to change: The Noumea strategy’. Also underway is a gender equality, social inclusion and human rights handbook highlighting the social dimensions across on-and offshore operations, at port or in science and management in the tuna industry.
With gender mainstreaming a significant priority for SPC as it moves to implement more integrated programming under the organisation’s Strategic Plan 2022–2031, this volume of work shows promise in existing initiatives and ways of working. To build on the successful work thus far, an ambitious task has been placed before Mereseini.
“In my role, I’m looking across the whole organisation to see what we’re doing as an institution on gender equality. Then seeing where we as SPC need to go from here to sustainably mainstream gender equality as part of the people-centred approach to science, research and technology across the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s not something that can happen overnight. While we are doing this work, it must also be done properly. We need the right motive for substantive, sustainable change.”
While there is an ambitious mandate and a large organisation in the midst of change in front of her, Mereseini is not one to fear complex challenges.
She’s inspired daily by her mother and remains steadfast in her commitment to gender equality since those early days by the ocean.
“I’ve got all this education she didn’t, what excuse do I have not to do the work?”
“She was able to teach me all these great things. So, rooted in faith and the ultimate belief that nothing happens by accident, I don’t see roadblocks or challenges – I see stepping stones. Every time I look back at an issue I encountered or a challenge I overcame, I see that it was an opportunity for development, to work differently or to strategise – pushing my capacity to its limit.
“So, for gender equality and the principles that surround it – it has to do with behaviour and how our minds are shaped, especially in the circumstances we find ourselves in. It’s not just something that can be taught in school or a workshop. It goes back to parents and how we raise our children.”
Lignes directrices pour les candidats
My Guide to Voting (MG2V) , a youth friendly booklet aimed at empowering diverse young women to think critically about their right to vote and their role in Fiji’s democratic process was launched by the Fiji Young Women’s Forum (FYWF) in Suva this week.
“The MG2V booklet will be a helpful tool in guiding diverse young women when it comes to election day. It will ensure equal and meaningful participation of ALL women,” said Cleo Petra, a co-convenor with the House of Colours. House of Colours is a volunteer based LGBTQI+ advocacy organisation in Northern Viti Levu, Fiji.
The booklet encompasses voices of diverse young women from all over Fiji on how they want their future to be or better off, how they want the present to be. Diverse women's voices are vital for good governance and MG2V would be an important tool for it." she said.
The MG2V Booklet has been published with support from the Pacific Community (SPC), through a grant funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of its US$19.8 million Promoting Just, Transparent and Civic Minded (PROJECT) Governance partnership programme.
Women are underrepresented across various levels of decision-making spaces in Fiji, despite the fact they make up 49.3 percent of Fiji’s population. Half of Fiji’s population were recorded to be under the age of 27.5 according to the Fiji Bureau of Statistics 2017 Census Results. FYWF is concerned that young diverse women are not provided with meaningful and inclusive opportunities to contribute or be consulted with Fiji’s laws though young women make a majority in Fiji.
Prior to the launch of the booklet, the FYWF held three (3) divisional dialogues with women between the ages of 18 – 35 in the Western, Northern and Central Divisions, cumulating in the 2022 National Declaration representing young women’s challenges and strategies towards human security. The launch hosted a panel discussion by the co-conveners on strategies outlined in the national declaration followed by a question-and-answer session.
Dorrin Irvin, a co-convener with the Emerging Leaders Forum Alumni ELFA) says "It is critical that all the hard work put towards the FYWF National Declaration by the diverse young women in Fiji is recognized by the upcoming government".
At the launch USAID Deputy Chief of Mission Rebbeca Owen highlighted the importance of effective participation of young women and girls in all their diversities in community and political life which is essential to building a healthy, inclusive and democratic society.
“It is important that youths and in particular young women are enabled to actively participate in all decision-making at national, regional and international levels so that we can build a more democratic, inclusive and just society and the first step in achieving this is to empower young women to engage in their civic right to active citizenship by providing them essential information on voting and political participation of young women in Fiji’s elections process,” Owens said.
“The My Guide to Voting booklet will go a long way in educating young women voters on their right to vote and the processes involved in order for them to exercise their right to political participation,” she added.
Luisa Tuilau, femLINKpacific co-convener of the forum added that the booklet is an expression of young women’s commitment to their roles as voters and citizens of Fiji.
About Fiji Young Womens Forum FYWF is co-convened by the House of Colours, Emerging Leaders Forum Alumni (ELFA) and femLINKpacific and is provided secretariat support by the Fiji Women's Rights Movement (FWRM). The FYWF builds on the initial Fiji Women’s Forum and a rich tradition of activism of Fijian women throughout Fiji’s national history. The FYWF is supported by the Australian Government through the We Rise Coalition.
First-ever Pacific ‘Community of Practice’ for effective national implementation of human rights commitments
In April of this year, 135 government officials and participants from 12 Pacific Island Countries concluded a Pacific talanoa on National Mechanisms for Implementation, Reporting and Follow-Up (NMIRF) with the formation of the first-ever Pacific regional Community of Practice (CoP) for continued learning and sharing on national mechanisms for reporting of human rights commitments.
The Pacific NMIRF Community of Practice currently has Nauru, Tuvalu and Tonga in its working group and is open for other countries to join.
The Pacific Regional talanoa was facilitated by the Pacific Community’s (SPC) Human Rights and Social Development Division which saw the participation of representatives from the Cook Islands, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
The event was funded by the United States Agency for International Development through the Promoting Just, Engaged, Civic-Minded and Transparent (PROJECT) Governance partnership programme.
The talanoa was an opportunity to understand, build capacity and share best practices in strengthening the reporting and implementation of human rights treaties at the national level.
The rationale behind the NMIRF CoP is to create a permanent platform for peer-to-peer learning and NMIRF establishment and strengthening efforts through PROJECT Governance, thereby significantly increasing the foundations of NMIRF work in the region.
The formation of the NMIRF CoP is a significant step taken by the Pacific region to build the momentum towards implementation of human rights commitments. While the international community has invested enormous time and energy in building the international human rights system over the past seven decades, it has expended far fewer resources in considering how best to implement
the obligations, commitments and recommendations generated by that system – or in tracking and measuring impact
on the enjoyment of human rights. Though in truth we simply do not know the degree to which domestic implementation is happening, this lack of focus on the part of world governments has given rise to the idea that a significant ‘implementation gap’ has been allowed to develop between universal values and local realities.
According to SPC’s Human Rights Advisor William Nainima, the 3-day NMIRF talanoa identified common experiences in the region in terms of the challenges, solutions, lessons learnt and the type of support that SPC can provide to members in terms of technical assistance.
“The final output from the talanoa session is that we were able to train as well as create a space for sharing and learning on national mechanisms for reporting, implementation and follow-up,” Nainima said.
Nainima added that a key outcome from the talanoa session was that it allowed for country-specific support to be identified and which will be addressed as part of PROJECT Governance.
Ms Carol Sanam Kitiona, a member from the Kiribati Human Rights Taskforce from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration highlighted that the collective discussions, opinions and inputs from all PICs that were present in this talanoa were all very valuable and no doubt contributed much to mitigating the common and shared NMIRF challenges that are faced.
She shared that the talanoa provided a wonderful platform for exchange with all other PICs on NMIRF.
“This whole NMIRF process is a difficult work in progress but engaging in these types of discussions with our regional family is a very efficient and effective way to improve ourselves in areas which we are lacking in,” Kitiona added.
She added that it clear from the dialogue that capacity remains an issue for NMIRF establishment and coordination and urged more focus on capacity and training.
“One of the common shared NMIRF challenges in the PICs is the management of information and reporting. I acknowledge NMIRF technical assistance in this matter and believe that with the introduction of the IMPACT OSS software, this will help ensure that the coordination and monitoring implementation are improved,” Kitiona noted.
Achieving gender equality is everybody’s business – first visit by international committee members to the Pacific a success
Pictured (left to right): Mereseini Rakuita, SPC Principal Strategic Lead - Pacific Women; Bandana Rana and Natasha Stott Despoja, CEDAW Committee members.
15 July 2022
Suva, Fiji – Two leading global experts on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) visited the Pacific region for the first time this week, working with ten Pacific Island governments to help advance work to improve the lives of women and girls in the region.
Over three days, Bandana Rana from Nepal and Natasha Stott Despoja from Australia joined around 100 participants for the Pacific Government CEDAW Learning Exchange held from 12–14 July 2022.
The government delegates from Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu enhanced their skills and knowledge to enable them to better report on and meet their agreed commitment to advance gender equality in the region – something expected of governments after ratification of treaties, such as CEDAW, at least every four years.
This exchange included the sharing of experiences, learning and examples of good practices by Pacific governments as well as through civil society organisations (CSOs) engagements –supported by the visiting experts.
“To find out where your gaps are, what needs to be done in the next 4 or 5 years - that’s what [the Committee] is doing. This is a clear map, a clear strong mechanism, that every state party should feel is an asset for you, to strengthen you, to create that roadmap for you, for equality, peaceful and just society,” shared Ms Rana.
The CEDAW committee members heard a range of challenges experienced by Pacific Governments faced during regular reporting from the participants. Among these is finding resources, data and statistics and other information needed to show the progress made towards advancing gender equality.
“Gender equality – achieving it is everybody’s business. It’s not up to women, it’s up to all of us. I look forward to working with us all – men, women, boys, girls, non-binary and other people – in order to bring about a world, not just a region, in which gender equality is the norm,” added Ms Stott Despoja.
During her opening remarks, Heike Alefsen, Regional Representative of the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) Pacific Regional Office said, “ I would like to applaud those Pacific Island states that have been meeting their reporting obligations under CEDAW on time and I hope that through this learning exchange, other countries will be encouraged to submit all overdue reports to the CEDAW Committee and establish national mechanisms for reporting and follow ups to assist in their reporting obligations.”
Ms Rana and Ms Stott Despoja travelled to Fiji to participate in the Learning Exchange, with participants joining the event via in-person ‘learning hubs’ in their respective countries.
“By knowing and using the Convention, governments have a powerful tool to guide their policy-making and legislation to ensure that women can enjoy all of their human rights and fundamental freedoms; and for achieving gender equality. We are pleased to support this regional exchange, and thank SPC and OHCHR for their strong and ongoing partnership in working with Pacific Island Governments, CSOs and communities to promote gender equality,” said Melissa Stutsel, Officer in Charge, UN Women Fiji Multi-country Office.
“SPC remains dedicated to supporting member governments with national implementation of their human rights and gender equality commitments, and through this collaboration with our UN counterparts, we hope to see improvements in the lives of women and girls across the Pacific,” stated Miles Young, Director of the Human Rights and Social Development (HRSD) Division of SPC.
The Pacific Government CEDAW Learning Exchange is supported by the Pacific Community (SPC), UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) and UN Women Fiji Multi Country Office (UN Women).
SPC’s support includes the Promoting Just, Engaged, Civic-minded and Transparent (PROJECT) Governance partnership between SPC and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Pacific Women Lead programme funded by Australia.
Two leading global experts on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) are in the region for the first time to work with 10 Pacific Island Governments in a CEDAW Learning Exchange.
6 July, 2022, SUVA - To ensure information is accessible for all persons with disabilities during the upcoming General Elections in Fiji, U.S. Charge d’Affaires Tony Greubel today handed over the first ever braille Assisted Voting Steps Easy to Read Guide to the Chairperson of the Fiji Electoral Commission Mr Mukesh Nand.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through its Promoting Just, Engaged, Civic-minded and Transparent (PROJECT) Governance program implemented by The Pacific Community (SPC) produced this braille Assisted Voting Steps Easy to Read Guide. They printed 2,100 copies so that every polling venue in Fiji will have a copy for persons who are blind or vision impaired.
SPC worked closely with the International Federation of Electoral Systems (IFES), the Elections Disability Access Working Group (EDAWG), and the Fiji Elections Office (FEO) to make elections information and associated materials for Persons with Disabilities more accessible, including making information available in braille for all individuals who are blind and vision impaired. This is the first time ever that Fiji elections information materials are available in this format. The content of the braille publication is a collaboration between SPC, International Federation of Electoral Systems (IFES), FEO and EDAWG. The production of the 2100 copies of the Braille Guide was carried out by the Fiji Society for the Blind.
Charge d’Affaires Greubel said, “We are proud of the work that has been done to develop this tool and the continued engagement with the Fiji Elections Office and Elections Disability Accessibility Working Group because we firmly believe that responsive governance is built when institutions and policies are accessible, accountable, and responsive to all their constituents, especially disadvantaged groups. To advance these beliefs, the U.S. government, through the USAID and with support from SPC, will continue to strengthen democratic governance in the Pacific and advance a shared vision of a resilient, free and open Blue Pacific”.
Chairperson of the Fiji Electoral Commission Mukesh Nand while receiving the braille guides said Today’s event is yet another step towards building electoral processes in Fiji that are inclusive and promote greater access and participation.
“Since 2014, the Fijian Elections Office has taken direct initiatives to work with Disabled Persons Organizations and other institutions that have expertise in this area,” he added.
“This morning, we received 2100 copies of ‘Assisted voting steps -the easy to read guide for the General Election’ in Braille and another such guide that is designed to enable persons with disabilities to participate in the election on their own. These materials will allow them to understand the electoral process better and participate effectively.
Seinimilia Seru from the United Blind Persons and a representative of EDAWG believes the translation of voter materials into braille and other formats is a significant step taken by FEO and other donor partners to ensure inclusivity of all persons in the upcoming general elections.
“The impact of getting all voter materials into accessible formats will go a long way in ensuring participation of persons with disabilities in political life,” she said.
Miles Young, Director of the Human Rights and Social Development Division of SPC said the contents of the Assistive Voting Steps Easy to Read Guide will also be available in other alternative accessible formats, such as sign language, audio, video, braille, and easy-to-read print versions as well as translated into both iTaukei and Hindi languages.
The Assistive Voting Steps Easy to Read Guide has valuable election information for voters, including reasonable accommodations available to persons with disabilities at polling venues, such as being able to bring a person of their choice and being able to vote within a 300-meter radius of their selected polling venue.
About PROJECT Governance
PROJECT Governance is a $19.8 million, five-year partnership between USAID and the Pacific Community (SPC). A key focus area for PROJECT Governance activities is to promote the fair and equal application of laws and the integrity of electoral and political processes that represent the will and interests of the people (just governance). Another key objective of PROJECT Governance is to promote responsive governance. Responsive governance exists when government institutions and policies are accessible, accountable, and responsive to the people they serve, especially disadvantaged groups.
For more information contact:
Ms Kalpana Nizarat, Communications and Visibility Officer for the Human Rights and Social Development Division of the Pacific Community
Email: [email protected] Phone: +679 9077550
Ms Neelam Prasad, Manager Communications, Fiji Elections Office
Email: [email protected]
International Day of Families on 15 May is an opportunity to examine how policies and programmes can be responsive to the diversity of families. This is vital for the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including SDG 5 for gender equality.
The Pacific Community (SPC) through the Pacific Women Lead programme will be looking at how to support partners to apply family-based approaches, particularly in the area of advancing gender equality in the region.
Some examples of family-based approaches from the region are reflected in two of the three Pacific Practice Notes produced as part of the transition to the Pacific Women Lead programme; “Gender Transformation in Practice” and “From Participation to Power: Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Pacific”.
These products share development practices contributing to gender transformative change in Papua New Guinea and the region. It includes approaches for promoting gender equality at individual, family, and community, and societal levels.
Projects like Family Farm Teams in Papua New Guinea have encouraged the reflection on gendered division of labour in households and helps families envision more equitable ways of dividing labour, decision making and income between women and men.
Other projects have engaged men meaningfully in gender transformation by adopting multiple strategies of examining social norms. In some cases, this is through modelling behaviours like sharing leadership roles and women and men working together.
Read the two practice notes on Pacific Data Hub:
Pacific Women Lead is at the centre of the Pacific Community’s (SPC) work for gender equality. It serves as secretariat to the PWL Governance Board and provides technical, convening and funding support to member government ministries, the civil society sector and other partners.
Located within SPC’s Human Rights and Social Development division, the Pacific Women Lead partnership with the Australian Government commits more than AUD 50 million over five years to promote women’s leadership and women’s rights, and to increase the effectiveness of regional gender equality efforts.
Pacific Women Lead continues to build on the almost 10-year long-term Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development (Pacific Women) programme, Pacific Women Lead is one of the largest single funding commitments to gender equality globally.