The Catholic Women’s League of Fiji celebrated their 50th Jubilee Celebrations on the northern island of Taveuni in August. Many of the women, both young and old, took an 11-hour sail from the capital of Suva to what is considered as Fiji’s ‘Garden Island.’ Known for their tenacious efforts to fundraise for the works of the church, as well as an active platform to empower and inform Catholic women, the League hold their annual AGM in August every year.
About 1,500 women gathered over a few days of meetings, celebrations, and Masses to raise over $190,000 in funds. The league had been organised 50 years ago so that the mothers of the church could help support young seminarians through their religious studies. Since that time, it has become one of the largest and most active women’s group in the country.
Silent No More Workshop
The AGM was chaired by Fiji’s current Archbishop, His Grace Peter Loy Chong, who is known for his progressive works throughout the Church. In recent years he has built a legacy of bringing women, youth, and climate change to the forefront of his pastoral agenda. His Grace dedicated the second day of the meeting to address domestic and sexual violence, titling it as – ‘Silent No More!’. This was particularly important because there were many women from both urban and rural parishes who would not usually have an opportunity to engage in such public discussions.
The Archbishop partnered with “Women at the Well,” a church ministry consisting of mostly women who speak on the high rates of violence and abuse to communities throughout the country. Three courageous women stood up at the session and told their stories to over a thousand people that day. They spoke of their experiences, their traumas, and the ways in which each one was able to deal with abuse. Tears flowed all around the session as listeners either empathised or sympathised with the three survivors. This was followed by a member of the police force who addressed the legal side of things, highlighting the women’s options and rights.
Later that evening, the Archbishop facilitated a meditation and restorative healing period to bring the session to a close. A timely and most relevant subject for women in Fiji, it was evident that many appreciated having such a sensitive topic addressed by the Bishop. What the session did was normalise and permit women to discuss what is too often considered a taboo subject in our culture.
It was refreshing to see the Archbishop of Fiji support a Catholic initiative such as ‘Women at the Well.’ It signifies the current winds of change moving throughout the Church. Sure, there is still a long way to go with changing the culture of silence and shame associated with violence against women, but these are steady beginnings for a journey towards healing for many.
The Catholic Women’s League has a majority membership of women with indigenous Fijian heritage, so much of the proceedings use the Fijian language and are centred around some cultural protocols. Therefore, it was a delightful surprise to find an Indo-Fijian woman by the name of Praveena Lata attending the AGM with her posse of Fijian Nanna’s. Hailing from her adopted village of Korolevu, I was interested in Praveena’s story, because not only was she the sole Indo-Fijian woman attending the AGM, but Praveena was a practising Hindu.
At 36 years old, Praveena has a 10 year old daughter who she brought with her to Taveuni as well as a 16 year old son back at home. Originally from the rural town of Labasa in Fiji’s northern island of Vanua Levu, Praveena married and moved to the main island where her husband works as an electrician at a resort near Korolevu village. She runs a canteen at the local Primary School and as a small business woman Praveena is known for being a workaholic in the community.
‘It’s tough being in business but my parents raised me to be an independent woman. So, I believe that while I’m still young and healthy, I will work very hard. Part of the culture here is to kerekere (ask for other people to provide things for you), but it’s always best to make your own money.
I work hard but when it’s time to enjoy, I ENJOY! I love to dance, and I’ve been dancing and enjoying myself during the nightly siba’s here (pronounced ‘simba’ – a time of singing, dancing, and merry-making). Time is so precious for me, if someone is selling ‘Time’ then I want to buy it because I never like to waste time. When it’s time work you work, when it’s time to enjoy then you enjoy.”
The history between Fijians and Indo-Fijians has been at times filled with ethnic tensions, so it was interesting to find that Praveena had built a close relationship with her Fijian Nanna’s over 17 years.
“My Nanna’s invited me to come with them to this AGM. I was so excited that I was the first to pay my ticket! I think Indo-Fijians should mix around more with Fijians, so they can experience the difference in cultures. My Nanna’s have helped me out and taught me many things. If I’m sick they will visit, cook, and clean for me. I do the same for them in return.
And I’m a Hindu, not a Catholic, but I love learning and experiencing different things. It doesn’t mean I have to change who I am; I can keep my culture and religion but still be friends with people who are different to me! I’m a vegetarian but I learn to adapt when I come out like this. My Nanna’s have looked after us here, making sure we have something to eat every day and looking after my daughter – they treat her just like she’s one of their grandchildren!”
Do you have any advice for young women today?
“Instead of wasting time on phones and devices, or just hanging around doing nothing, go and use your time properly by joining social or cultural initiatives in your communities. Learn to be independent and to make your own money so you can help out your family and those who need help. Money is not everything and shouldn’t be everything, but it can help you to support yourself.”
Indeed, the Catholic Women’s League showcased a women’s movement who are, in the words of one lady, “Alive and Kicking!” But more so, it signalled the recognition of hard-working urban and rural women who unite under a common cause and show the vitality and spirituality of Catholic women in Fiji. Praveena’s positive experience of the gathering also proves that when we attempt any new thing with love and an open mind, it is always sure to be life-giving.
Til next time, A.M. Waqa