Through decades of turmoil in Fiji, Sharon Bhagwan Rolls brought women’s voices to the forefront. She bears witness to the power of communication technologies in the hands of women.
“Sometimes the phone calls were solidarity messages; other times they were threats or someone berating me for speaking out.”
It was May 14, 1987, in Suva, Fiji Islands—two weeks after my 21st birthday. As I was shown into the studio of the FM96 radio station to commence broadcast training, announcer Natalie Edwards turned toward us. Instead of welcoming me into the studio, she announced, “Sam Thompson is reporting from parliament that there has been a military coup."
My heart sank. There had been indicators of political dissent since the April elections. I had missed out on the opportunity to vote, and I have to admit I was fairly oblivious to the intricate layers of conflict in my country, where traditional governance structures merged with national politics, race and religion, land and economic power.
I was trying to understand what this news meant for the future, my future. There was no way that the radio training program would proceed as planned.
Words like detention, curfew, and road checks soon became part of our daily conversation as the coup perpetrators flexed their control on the flow of information. At the time, the main information platform for the country was national radio, so shortwave radio became a luxury item to access news and information.
Beyond my own dilemmas, I started to recognize the greater consequences of the overthrow of democracy in my country. I communicated my anger in an editorial piece for the Pacific YWCA newsletter, and I became one small voice of protest amidst a multitude of human rights defenders and political activists speaking out. Many of us were women.
I soon learned the dangers of being a voice of political dissent. I found myself briefly detained at the Nadi International Airport on my way to the World YWCA Council meeting, and I watched other activists face far more serious intimidation and violence.
Despite political ebbs and flows—including a second coup that year, riots, the revoking of our constitution, an interim government, and continued controls on the media—I persisted in starting my career in broadcasting.
By the 1999 general elections, Fiji had a revised constitution and political parties were able to campaign on television for the very first time. As the manager of a small production company, I found myself meeting political leaders who wanted to reach a mass audience. At the same time, I was beginning to see the need for alternatives to commercial media platforms on radio and television to communicate with communities, most importantly with women.
Even before the 1987 coup, I was very aware of the significance of information communication technology for women. My mother worked as a stenographer through a period of evolution in office technology. She belonged to women’s networks that organized to produce and distribute information using available technology—years before use of the copier became widespread. I saw how the global women’s movement enabled the exchange of news and information decades before the Internet.
As a broadcaster, I saw that as technology developed so did the opportunity to make radio and television production more accessible.
When news of a new coup and hostage crisis broke on May 19, 2000, I was watching all of this from a new vantage point. I had taken a sabbatical from mainstream media and had been elected as the Secretary of the National Council of Women Fiji a month earlier.
On the day of the coup, a friend’s brother accompanied me to ensure my safety as I walked home from the city. I thought about the safety and security of my small children, grateful for the small mercy that they were safe with their dad.
My friend from the YWCA Tupou stayed the night with me. It was our second coup together. We watched news coverage throughout the night—this time through television service as well as radio stations.
The next day, my friend and I called on our sisters in the YWCA and reached out through our local networks. We resolved to convene for peace and call for the release of the hostages in compliance with the 1997 Constitution and rule of law.
On May 21, 2000, we began a daily peace vigil at the Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral. We combined prayer and action throughout and beyond the 56-day hostage crisis. This mobilization of women led to the Fiji Blue Ribbon campaign. We adopted the blue of our flag and brought together the women of the vigil with trade unions and the private sector to work for peace.
As we worked around the curfew and power cuts, a group of us became known as the Vigil ‘aunties. The mothers and grandmothers who came daily to the vigil showed us how we could work together across a political divide at a time of insecurity. These were our “wo’mentors” and they strengthened our daily resolve.
By this time, we had Internet access and we could share our messages beyond our borders with help from friends in women’s civil society networks in other countries. We didn’t yet have Twitter or Facebook Live. I was one of only a few activists who had a mobile phone. Much of our communication still took place over landline phones. Sometimes the phone calls were solidarity messages; other times they were threats or someone berating me for speaking out.
We also took our message directly to media outlets in Fiji. We weren’t just calling for an end to the crisis. We outlined a series of recommendations through the initiative Women’s Action for Democracy and Peace. But the envoys sent by the UN and the Commonwealth never came to speak to us, the women of the Blue Ribbon Peace Vigil.
The timely adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) that year was a turning point for us. This UN resolution recognized and focused the world’s attention on the important role of women in the peacebuilding process.
This focus on women’s participation for the prevention of conflict shaped the way I thought and worked. A new pathway emerged to proactively extend the outreach of the Blue Ribbon Peace Vigil in Fiji. When new elections took place in Fiji in 2001, women became more involved than ever. We began to speak out about our leadership values and our peace, security, and development priorities.
On December 5, 2006, our peace was shattered once again. Those who dissented from the military coup, including women’s rights defenders, bore the brunt of military violence.
I thought about my role as a communicator. I felt that women should not be invisible at a time when the country was in crisis. But I also felt a responsibility to protect, to ensure the safety and security of women speaking out.
As the executive producer-director and co-founder of the women-led media organization femLINKpacific, I continued to grapple with these issues. Over the years, I have worked with and through peacebuilding networks such as the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) and feminist networks such as the Shifting the Power Coalition and the Feminist Alliance on Rights (FAR). This work has affirmed for me how women can use information and communications technologies (ICTs) to build peace and also to bring greater visibility to the innovation of Pacific women and their dedication to inclusive preventative action.
The media coverage of the coups in 2000 and 2006 differed significantly from the coverage of the first military coup in 1987. For the later coups, media organizations had the opportunity to cover the events as they evolved, like never before. Mobile phones offered greater opportunity for radio journalists to cover events from the various spheres of action. With television more widespread, families around Fiji could now gather around “the box” to witness vivid sound and visions of the crises. The new opportunities to communicate via the Internet meant all sorts of news traveled fast and far—with both positive and negative impacts.
While ICTs create new opportunities for women to be heard and participate in the process of decision making, these opportunities are often limited by infrastructure and political challenges in the Pacific.
What does empowerment through ICTs mean for women who still have no electricity? Listening to the radio requires being able to afford batteries. It requires being able to negotiate with the men in the household and community for access. Where is the peace if there is poverty of information and communication?
As I work to bridge the gap between the United Nations and women in rural communities in my country, I am confronted with the fact that in many rural communities, there is no clean water despite lots of running streams. Many children still have no bridge to cross to get to school. During the rainy season, many roads are impassable, which can lead to death for anyone experiencing a medical emergency. Some of the roads are so bad that even three-ton trucks refuse to transport villagers to town with their goods. Climate change has led to intensifying disasters in Fiji, which have impacted the daily lives of Pacific women.
This is why our responses and solutions must ensure the diversity of women’s voices, experiences, and expertise. We must consider infrastructure and the issues that affect women’s lives most when planning developments relating to new ICTs.
Whether a woman is talking into a tape recorder or being interviewed for a community video, ICTs can enable women to communicate our definitions of peace and security. The efforts of the women’s media movement have given rise to community radio and supported women in learning, strategizing and communicating our demands.
Women’s access to ICTs is about more than just making women heard, just as media advocacy is about more than just increasing the number of women in a newsroom. It is also about ensuring that the information is in a form and delivered to women in a way that will make the best impact.
Peace and security are not just concepts, but lived realities. Women remain sidelined from the decision making processes from the international level to regional peace and security structures, and even within our own national development frameworks as well as at the local or community level.
Women are still struggling to take our rightful place as legitimate representatives of our communities. Whatever forms of technology and media we use must meet the needs of women, people in rural communities, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. Only then can we build and sustain peaceful communities, where all have the freedom to have our say without fear.
We are two years away from the 20th anniversary of UNSCR1325 and it is as urgent as ever that we localize our international commitments and involve women and young women in developing, producing, and distributing our own media. There remains a persistent information and digital divide between urban and rural communities, between men and women, young and old, disabled and able-bodied people, as well as the global north and global south.
It is time to close the gaps. The Pacific Forum Boe Declaration adopted by the Pacific Forum Leaders meeting in 2018 now formally expands the concept of security to “human security, humanitarian assistance, prioritizing environmental security and regional cooperation in building resilience to disasters and climate change."
I really hope that UNSCR1325 and sister resolutions like UNSCR2250 on youth, peace, and security will continue to enable women to articulate our realities, our visions and claim our rightful place in decision making for equality, development and a just and sustainable peace. We need to be present at both the formal negotiations and informal (track 2) processes to ensure policy commitments are truly transformative.
Today in Fiji, women continue to keep watch. The blue ribbon may not be as visible today as it was when we began our vigil, but it remains at the heart and soul of my ongoing work as a gender, media and communications specialist. It is a symbol of the ongoing work linking women together for peace and human security.
This story was published as part of the Future of Security Is Women digital event and is sponsored by our partner Our Secure Future. World Pulse runs Story Awards year round—share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.