The Gender and Environment course (GN402) is the Pacific’s very first course that examines gender equality and social inclusion within the context of fisheries and aquaculture and the environment. In alignment with the PEUMP Programme’s key principle, mainstreaming of human rights and gender equality through a human rights-based approach, the Gender and Environment course provides a forum for the critical examination and understanding of how gender plays out in environmental issues, with a focus on the Pacific Island countries. The course provides students with a holistic view on gender and environmental issues through an integrated approach that acknowledges the cross-cutting nature of gender concepts.
To mark this milestone, USP PEUMP reached out to several of the first cohorts that successfully registered and completed this course in Semester 1, 2022. This is Watisoni’s story.
USP is one of four key implementing partners of the PEUMP Programme, an initiative funded by the European Union and the Government of Sweden. The overall EUR 45million Programme promotes sustainable management and sound ocean governance for food security and economic growth while addressing climate change resilience and conservation of marine biodiversity. It follows a comprehensive approach, integrating issues related to ocean fisheries, coastal fisheries, community development, marine conservation and capacity building under one single regional action.
- Tell us briefly about your background and journey into the gender space and this course.
My name is Ra Burenivalu Watisoni Lutunatabua Raikadroka and people call me Watisoni or Watts as my nickname. My father is originally from the chiefly clan in Ra but my ancestors settled in Bua village during pre -colonization for wars and dissentions until today. My mother is from the chiefly clan in Tavualevu village where I spend my life as a childhood until today. I started my career as a musician before I graduated from Fiji Institute of Technology in 2003, represented Fiji to Sydney, Australia for the Simba role in the Lion King Broadway Production.
In 2006, I was the Assistant Producer for Fiji Television local program documentary series the ‘Noda Gauna’ – program on the history of iTaukei people that settled with their tribes to different places in Fiji before I was the Producer in 2009 & 2010.
In 2011 I joined USP studying Politics and History before I joined Fiji Broadcasting Commission in 2015 and later became the Assistant Roko Tui for Lau and Namosi province in 2015 to 2018. In 2019, I came back to USP for a Diploma in Leadership, Governance and Human Rights before I did my Post Graduate course on Gender. My journey in Gender Studies started in March 2021 on GN 400 – Contemporary Feminism – Theory, Methods & Debates and I made a conclusion in my mind that although I studied politics, history, governance and human rights, gender studies was the icing on the cake because I needed to understand the dynamics of the society through people’s choice of representation and expression.
When, I completed Semester 1, I wanted to know more and I enrolled in Semester 2 GN 401 – Gender, Global Change and Development in a Comparative Perspective. It had really allowed me to challenge myself to how I can relate this discipline to my friends and families and mostly I began to understand the inequalities and struggles that these minority groups face every day from the people.
Sometimes, I am asked why gender studies since I had a conflict of interest on my rank, social status and the chiefly construct I acquire. My answer is always, before you formulate policies and laws, you have to understand the diversity of people you are dealing with so that no one is left behind and our fundamental rights should be paramount always. It was also very challenging because during the pre- election of 2020 General Election, I already travelled throughout Fiji where I made awareness on the fundamentals of recognising and respecting their children’s choice of expressing their gender not conforming to mainstream ones. Every person has a right to choose how they can be represented in terms of gender and we must respect that personal development. Empowering our rural communities with gender studies and their feedbacks was positive because they now understood what gender really meant.
- How has this course contributed to your understanding of feminist theory and gender equality?
My understanding of feminist theory and gender equality has really broaden and helped me personally understand the importance of teaching gender at university level, particularly in Fiji where patriarchal is prevalent in our societies.
The feminist theory has helped me to focus on analysing gender inequality. Themes such as discrimination, patriarchy, stereotyping and marginalization are some common ones I can relate to. In the iTaukei context, these themes are prevalent especially when dealing with women and LGBTQI+. Since I am from the ruling family of chief in the village, where rank is paramount, I often witnessed how women are marginalised and discriminated in terms of rank and social developments in the village. Most of these women are often discriminated during meetings and planning because of the stereotype culture that already constructed in the village, mostly men. ITaukei societies are patriarchal, and men always ruled, from chiefly status to decision making within the homes. My gender studies has indeed helped me develop research skills and proposals on topics around the deconstruction of these patriarchal notions. I have, today completed my research proposal on the topic Challenges for iTaukei women chiefs in Fiji – Case study of Lomanikoro village in Rewa, as a Master’s thesis on Gender Studies. LGBTQI+ people are also under the spotlight in the iTaukei context. We do not believe in third gender because of the history of missionaries introducing Christianity that only supports binary. When people choose to join the LGBTQI+ community in the village they are discriminated form the lenses of religion, patriarchy and many times this group feel safe with the women because they can understand them.
In the iTaukei context, men have their birthright and their constructed space whilst women have their own. During decision making, men are always dominating the scene whilst women are only heard when it comes to their social club or catering duties for cleaning the village, workshops or the arrival of a visitor. Apart from that, the first choice is always men. Equality is often observed at a domestic space where most women manage their homes through shopping and also husbands assist their wives in cooking and washing. I am thankful for government policy where decision making in the village should comprise of 30% female and 70% male. However, the scale is still imbalanced because patriarchy is still visible. This is still a major challenge today in Fiji not only at the village or provincial context but also at national level where women are under-represented.
- From your personal/professional experiences, what are the 3 most common gender related issues within the context of fisheries/aquaculture and the environment at large?
The 3 most common gender related issues within the context of fisheries/aquaculture and the environment at large are gender inequality, women disempowerment and the lack of social inclusion.
- How will your learnings from this course help you to approach solutions to these key issues?
These key issues are prevalent in all the different aspects of our societal levels due to the patriarchal construct that shapes them. Since these inequalities are often addressed regarding women and gender related issues, it is crucial that we should empower our society to deconstruct that fabricated ideas that most social, economic and cultural ambit are reserved for men and masculinities.
For example, fishing is always associated with men but literatures have recognised that most rural women resort to gleaning for food security especially within the domestic ambit. One inequality leads to another, and the case here is that our society in the Pacific Island countries often reflect on social inequalities which impacts women and gender in terms of traditional practise of fishing , farming and other practises. When these issues are addressed in our society, we are raising the bar of social justice in terms of empowering minorities that is women and sexual minorities to have a level playing field with men in any space whether it be employment, fishing or environmental preservation.
- Has your perception of the role of women in the fisheries, aquaculture and other environmental sectors at large changed as a result of this course? If so, how?
Yes, my perception on the roles of women in fisheries, aquaculture and other environmental sectors have really changed. However, I have witnessed women gleaning and fishing in the village on a smaller scale compared to men but somehow I never had an understanding that those inequalities was actually on literatures of academia and researches until I enrolled for gender studies. In the village, our women’s club are engaged in different socio-economic activities and also climate change mitigation plans such as mangrove planting, having a greenhouse for native trees and flowers. Although it is not extensive, it is a commitment empowered by workshops and capacity building provided by government and NGOs.
- Describe 1 key lesson you learnt from this course that you can apply to your professional/personal life?
The choices that we make in lives matters to everyone around us whether it will be family, society, village or a nation. When we fight against gender inequality, discrimination, marginalization and stereotype, we are sending the signal and empowering our audience on what we believe. Social injustice fuels insecurity and instability; and women and sexual minorities cannot survive in that society. There is a great need to empower our people about gender equality and having inclusive policies in Fiji that protects women and gender sexual minority rights. Innovation is also a key factor in formulating laws and policies to the dynamics of our societies today because when we understand the people, we will protect them by the laws that we make. Participation, Responsiveness, Consensus oriented, equity, inclusiveness are some of the key themes if we want to mitigate social inequalities.
- Any other comments?
I would like to thank you for this opportunity and request for sponsorship for my Masters on Gender Studies in 2023. Vinaka.