AS a child in my secondary school years, we could tell when the seasons were changing as we would see the colours of the leaves on the trees surrounding the school change to brown, orange or red before it finally fell off the trees. Though we lived in a hot tropical island in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons of the north were truly reflected by the tree.
We could sense the change in seasons, though we were isolated from America or England where seasons changed in the second half of the year from summer, to autumn and finally winter when leaves would all fall off and leave the trees bare.
In the last month we have sensed the change in seasons as women all over Fiji have been involved in the civic education process. There has been a shift from the fear of the unknown and anxiousness to one of positive expectations where they have informed other women as well as men in their communities about the implications of the new constitution on womenfolk. Women have shown in the recent months that they are aware of the constitutional process, are aware of their civic duties and try their best to do what is required of them, yet when it comes to them receiving due recognition and due respect there is a gap in this being accorded to them.
It is one thing saying that women are equal before the law but it is another thing actually doing it and giving them due recognition. It has nothing to do with religious beliefs, nor the law, but it has a lot to do with the attitudes of all citizens of our country.
Take for instance the time given to women to present their constitution submissions. While some older women and men were allowed the space to air their constitution submissions some younger women were not.
In a workshop conducted by UN Women and the Ministry of Women, old women who were participants had to double up in a male dormitory at a local tertiary institute while the student occupants were shifted elsewhere. Participants at another such funded workshop were not given meal money and were to look for their meals until the last day when their meal allowance was finally given. Another group was told to check in and out of their accommodation daily. One wonders if the same laxity in attitude would have been seen if other more reputable members of the public were to be involved in the workshop.
Recently, while government wanted to show its support for women, women from all parts of Fiji converged in Suva and they were not met at their accommodation nor were they given proper instructions and meals until late evening. Yet these women from rural communities were shipped in from all over the country to come and celebrate their effort. One wonders as to whose effort was being applauded?
You may be asking what is your issue and my answer to that is that some things need to be changed. If some government officers n are not doing their jobs then maybe it is time that they be asked to take more responsibility and be really respectful of women around the country and not just spout words to appease the public when they are talking to the media.
This government has been applauded for its fairness and justice in addressing issues and it is high time that certain ministries and their officials be taken to task. Women's issues are not just about giving them handouts but also about respecting their dignity, their human rights and being particularly mindful of the special concerns of women.
While women were celebrating rural women's day last week we are reminded that there are thousands of womenfolk coming to markets every weekend and they sleep outside on the pavements of markets around the country.
We celebrate Rural Women's Day and applaud the women's efforts but how much of this is really rhetoric? Women have been selling in or markets for decades and though their plight has been aired in the media, with the exception of Rakiraki and Ba markets, none of the councils in Fiji have provided rural women with the much needed amenities to sleep, shower and live like a dignified human being when coming to the markets to sell their wares each weekend.
Article 14 of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women reads "State Parties shall take into account the particular problems faced by rural women and the significant roles which rural women play in the economic survival of their families, including their work in their non-monetised sectors of the economy, and shall take all appropriate measures to ensure the application of the provisions of the present Convention to women in rural areas".
Rural women have been crying for years they need somewhere to sleep when they come into sell at the markets. They come in the middle of the night or early in the morning and when they do arrive, some form of dignity is to be accorded them by means of their sleeping and resting quarters. If women make up 50 per cent of the population, make up 50 per cent of tax payers, make up 50 per cent of consumers and contribute 50 per cent of the GDP, is it not right that 50 per cent of the nation's tax be directed to improving the welfare of women?
If we had to conduct a gender audit today, how much of each sector's budget would really be directed to women and issues relating to women?
The Constitution Commission has completed the exercise of receiving submissions on what we want in our constitution. We have our rights guaranteed under the Bill of Rights but as alluded to earlier is this enough to ensure that women's issues are dealt with or should we ensure that clauses of non-discrimination as in the constitution of Serbia be incorporated, and that the State be made to ensure that substantive equality exists as in the Constitution of Turkey or in the Constitution of Iraq?
Many say that Fiji is nation with particular religious beliefs and that we have equal treatment of all human beings embedded in our faiths but should we focus on doctrines only and not on what is practised?
Should we continue to go the way we are heading without taking stock of what is happening and what could be made better?
Shouldn't we be truly inclusive and realise that it is the duty of the State to ensure the safety, integrity, dignity and well being of all its citizens and not just to elevate that of a select few?
Should it take women to be critically disadvantaged or even die before actions are taken?
For so long women have been on the periphery of policies, decisions and attitudes have perpetuated the patriarchal ideals which are further expounded by our various religious doctrines.
I am not saying that we disrespect our men but only that we can be better partners and helpers in everything from running the family to running government. Policies and laws need to support this ideal and yes our attitudes towards women need to change.
As we head towards the new constitution and as we remember women in rural areas who toil to help their families and our nations' economy, I am pleading that women's issues be put as government priority. In addition, certain government officers be taken to task for further exploiting, and causing harm to women , as reflected in their lax attitudes and disrespectful behaviour.
Something has to change and women must not be made to suffer in silence anymore.
Just as seasons change and as leaves fall from trees to signify this change certain things must fall from our normal patterns of behaviour and attitudes if women's issues are to be truly reflected in our government policies and laws.
Let us truly celebrate Rural Women's Day and make changes to benefit the rural women of our country and not just do activities to make us feel good about what we think we are doing for women without truly listening to them!
* Fay Volatabu is the general secretary for the National Council of Women Fiji. Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.