The untold story of domestic violence in Fiji

The dark side of 'paradise'

Vienna Daniels

PHOTO: Maxwell Lowe

Society and culture | Pacific

21 May 2019

Pacific Island countries continue to have some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the Asia-Pacific. Why does this remain such a rampant issue, and what can be done to combat this challenge? Vienna Daniels looks at domestic violence in Fiji.

If you fly into Fiji from overseas, you will most likely arrive in Nadi International Airport. It’s only a short drive from the nearby Denarau island, a complex of resorts and hotels, where tourists can embark on luxurious cruises across Fiji’s 330 islands. The man-made Denarau features big-name hotels (like the Hilton and Sofitel) which litter the coast, welcoming tourists with flower garlands (salusalu) and the promise of heaven on Earth.

Nadi Airport’s location is convenient because it allows tourists to completely bypass any local villages, and is far removed from the capital Suva. It is incredibly easy to get lost in this stunning mirage and leave feeling as though Fiji could not get any more perfect.

But the reality for many Fijian locals is far removed from the splendour and luxury experienced by tourists, especially for women.

Domestic abuse is one of the most pressing human security issues facing Pacific Island nations, and in Fiji, it is grossly rampant. In previous studies, the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC) found that 72 per cent of Fijian women had experienced some form of physical, sexual or emotional violence in intimate relationships. These shocking rates have seen little change over recent years, despite action from both internal and external organisations.

The FWCC has been dedicated to fighting violence against women in Fiji since 1984. The Centre first began with the intention of supporting victims of gender-based violence through a range of services, including legal advice and psychological support. It then expanded to also provide domestic violence prevention, through raising awareness, providing education, and conducting relevant research throughout Fiji.

It’s not just the FWCC trying to put an end to this issue. The European Union and the United Nations also recently announced a 50 million investment to ending domestic violence throughout the Pacific. Non-governmental organisations, such as the Regional Rights Resource Team also work to encourage Pacific nations to combat gender-based violence.

So if there is no shortage of initiative from both local and international communities, why does this epidemic remain widespread?

Historically, strict gender roles in Fijian society have always existed. Before British colonisation of the island in the mid-1870s, Fiji had a hierarchical system lead by chiefs and the passing of power through the male bloodline. And to a lesser degree, it still does today.

When the British colonialists first arrived, they formed a prejudiced image of local Fijians as savage cannibals. They also introduced a constitutional monarchy in Fiji, which included a Western philosophy of patriarchy underpinned by Christianity.

The traditional patriarchal hierarchy of Fiji was united with British Christian patriarchy, to form a highly oppressive environment for women. Fijian women were pushed further into silence and conformity. Any avenues to bring about change were nonexistent.

The impact of these social norms remain widespread, even in the modern, post-colonial era today. For a very long time, the issue of domestic violence was an untold story, and the voices of Fijian women silenced.

The FWCC and other organisations, however, have made some notable achievements so far. They have encouraged progress, by educating and supporting both women and men on the severity of domestic violence, as well as raising awareness both domestically and internationally.

Sadly, there is still a lot more to be done.

The unfortunate reality is that all of these organisations still lack support from where they need it most – the Fijian government. Some support for the FWCC has been previously provided by Fiji’s leaders, such as allowing them to set up a National Domestic Violence Hotline and offering minor assistance in their research. 

But the extent of their support for the Centre ends there. The Centre depends almost entirely on aid from the Australian government and local donors. In the almost three decades of the FWCC’s existence, the Fijian government has never provided substantial monetary assistance.

In fact, in the early days of the FWCC, the Fijian government recommended that they remove the term ‘crisis’ from their name, feeling that the negative association would ruin Fiji’s identity as a tropical paradise.

Fiji’s complicated political past could be to blame for the lack of initiative on a domestic level. But when such a large majority of the nation’s women have suffered, we must ask why the issue isn’t being treated as an urgent human security crisis. Is the government still afraid of ‘ruining’ Fiji’s image by properly acknowledging and supporting this cause?

Australia’s contributions to the FWCC have already lead to immense change for the country. But as foreign observers, we must encourage support from within, whilst being careful not to assume the role of Western saviours, set on rescuing islanders from themselves. This process must involve active participation from the government.

For too long the battle against domestic violence has been almost exclusively fought by non-governmental organisations and international aid. In order for a true reduction of domestic violence to happen, the government must start taking effective action, so that Fiji can be a paradise for all, not just for tourists.

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