Why you should care

Palm trees and turquoise waters don’t make a paradise. This Fijian woman is determined to tackle inequality on her tropical island nation.

Roshika Deo had some bad news. She’d been routed in her first election, a bid to enter Fiji’s Parliament as an independent pro-youth candidate. The party of the strongman who engineered the Fijian coup in 2006 had won 60 percent of the vote. Deo had garnered 0.2 percent.

“So why is she so happy?” I ask myself, as she answers my questions with apparent elation.

“We surpassed the other independent candidate and even more votes than all the candidates in an entire political party!” she says, her voice ringing with the excitement of a Christmas morning. “The revolution has started and this is just beginning.”

Maybe.

As a young, penniless woman of Indian descent, Deo believes she represents everything the political establishment fears.

At 33, Deo is already somewhat of a lightening rod in the tiny and tumultuous nation of Fiji, in the Pacific Islands. For the past decade, the bespectacled, bright-eyed lawyer has promoted women’s rights and agitated against the dictatorship’s repression of dissent. It’s personal: As a survivor of gender violence, she says she works “so that no other girl or woman will have to go through what I went through.” Indeed. Fiji’s rates of violence against women and girls are among the highest in the world, with 64 percent of women reporting physical or sexual violence in their relationships.

Her electoral returns are not quite as bad as they seem. Fiji First, the party of coup leader Frank Bainimarama, had a full slate of candidates and eventually won 32 seats; Deo did not run with an established party. She says she knew the odds were terribly long. As a young, penniless woman of Indian descent, Deo believes she represents everything the political establishment fears.

In any case, Deo seems in it for the long haul. “This is just the beginning for her,” says Dr. Nicole George, a Fiji expert at the University of Queensland, Australia. “She’s a very courageous person and she’s brought a lot of conviction and a lot of energy into the political scene.”

That scene is small and thorny. An island with 900,000 inhabitants, Fiji has one of the region’s richest economies, thanks to exports of sugar, frozen fish and a growing tourist industry. But one-third of its citizens live under the poverty line, and society is heavily male- dominated, ruled mostly by older men. The rate of women’s political participation is among the lowest in the world. Women represented only 17 percent of candidates in this election and seven of 50 seats in parliament.

…Many of my supporters ended up voting for larger parties out of fear. This election was about survival more than representation, and I respect that.

— Roshika Deo

Tensions also remain high between the island’s ethnic Fijian majority and the Indo-Fijians, mainly descendants of workers brought from India by British colonial rule. Hindu Indo-Fijians — about 38 percent — and the Methodist natives — about 58 percent — have both been demanding more rights. The conflict played an important role in a succession of coups in 1987, 2000 and 2006. The first two of those toppled an Indian-minority government. Bainimarama’s, in 2006, aimed at restoring Indo-Fijian rule, though his messaging in this last campaign was anti-racist.

Deo’s work has brought international recognition: In 2013, she was shortlisted for the Amnesty International Human Rights award. This year, the U.S. Department of State named her the International Woman of Courage.

At home, it’s a different story. “It’s sad that the work we do gets appreciated abroad more than it does here,” she says.

Deo’s political campaign, “Be The Change,” focused on democratic change, social justice and ending discrimination and violence against women. But it failed to gain widespread support. “I know many of my supporters ended up voting for larger parties out of fear. This election was about survival more than representation, and I respect that,” says Deo.

United States African-American First Lady Michelle Obama applauds at a young Indian woman wearing reading glasses in front of a large crowd

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama applauds Deo.

Deo’s tactics may be inspired, or just naïve. She was the first candidate to announce her intention to run and refused offers to join established parties. “This allows me to directly represent the people and their issues without going through party lines and policies. It’s not a matter of arrogance but of honesty,” says Deo. That approach essentially assured defeat.

Choosing to run alone also made her the target of vicious attack by many including members of Fiji First and the other main party, Sodelpa, which enjoys strong support among native Fijians. Members accused her of exaggerating the treatment of women in Fiji while abroad.

Online harassment has been her daily bread. Opponents posted photoshopped pictures of her as the fierce Hindu Goddess Kali, surrounded by skulls and even calling for her to be “taken to the cassava patch” — a local euphemism for rape.

I receive messages from girls telling me their stories of abuse and how they found the courage to deal with it and I realize I can’t give up.

— Roshika Deo

“Changing mentalities is hard, but not impossible,” she says, chipper as ever.

When she was 8 years old, she told her father that she wanted to be Fiji’s prime minister. His message to her: Be a doctor or a lawyer. Ten years later, Deo chose to get a degree in law. She’s fast with words, her oratory polished through years as an active member of the local Toastmasters club. Democracy, she figured, was the only way to secure rights of women and minorities, and she went into politics against the advice of family members. They told her to get married first.

“Working for women’s rights helped me heal,” she says. Since 2012, she has led the “Take Back the Streets Fiji” campaign for safer transport and brought One Billion Rising — the global movement to end violence against women — to Fiji and the Pacific Islands, bringing men and women from all corners of Fiji to march and dance on the streets of Suva, the capital.

It hasn’t been easy, she says, but, “I am single, I don’t have children, I can devote myself to this. I receive messages from girls telling me their stories of abuse and how they found the courage to deal with it and I realize I can’t give up.”

Still, her boldness has even scared some women’s organizations, which refused to openly support her.

So maybe she lacks subtlety. “If you stick up your head too fast people like to cut you down,” says George. “She’s smart, but it takes a lot of energy to sustain this in the long run.”

Deo is already looking forward to 2018 — the date of the next elections — and planning to make “Be The Change” into a full-fledged political party by then.

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