Feminist Organising: Strengthening a Movement - A perspective from the Pacific Small Island States

Date: Friday, September 13, 2019


Noelene Nabulivou

The Pacific women’s movement works hard and demonstrates sustainability, strength and growth. This interview highlights some of the lessons learned that can serve as an example and encouragement for feminist and women-led movements in the Caribbean and across the globe.

Facing down the climate change crisis has forced women’s organisations in the Pacific to recognise their areas of common interest, and to push past siloed approaches to re-define and reclaim solidarity. Specific work on generating and affirming Pacific feminist knowledge-sharing and strategy, has brought strength and political will. A regional organising of the various entities through two Pacific Feminist Forums has also been a main unifying driver.

This analysis was shared by Noelene Nabulivou, a staunch Fijian feminist and advocate,  who is the Political Advisor of women’s CSO - Diverse Voices and Action (DIVA) for Equality  in an interview with UN Women MCO Caribbean Communications Analyst, Sharon Carter-Burke on the recent South-South Caribbean-Fiji exchange.

 “The fact that we have a climate change crisis, an ecological emergency means that women are more willing to put aside some of their differences and to look for the commonalities, to work out how we can be in solidarity, because we do not have much time to correct this ecocide. This is genuinely changing the movement.  There are lots of us in the past who would not have worked closely together, and we are now because we must.”

Noelene noted that breaking through the barrier of thematic areas of focus has not always been easy because different groups were not that open to non-specialists stepping into their spaces.

“A lot of our women’s movements are very siloed, … the women in climate work on climate, a lot of women in EVAW, work primarily on EVAW and the women in economic development, a very small group, work on economic development. So, we have spent a lot of time doing the conceptual work around South feminist organising on interlinkage, not intersectionality, but interlinkage."


Intersectionality is defined as “the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect”. To break that down, it essentially means that discrimination doesn’t exist in a bubble – different kinds of prejudice can be amplified in different ways when put together [1]

Interlinkage is the joining or connecting of two or more things together. In a south feminist frame (DAWN), this means attention to linkages between sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), Political economies of globalisation (PEG), Political restructuring and social transformation (PRST), and Political ecology and sustainability (PEAS).

Pacific feminists are doing this in many ways, with us it has been “… using an old DAWN (Development for a New Era) model but breaking it down into its component parts and using very simple and visual tools so that it really belongs to all kinds of feminists – what we really value-add is that we are prepared to do the work both on how bodies are different, on how human rights are carried within individual bodies, and that those differences matter when we recognise, claim and protect human rights of all women. Once we brought women into rooms with that kind of thinking, it helped because it took out the angst of who is working on what, and why. What intersectional identities allow me to do, is to look at things in a different way from your view of our rights, and we can find commonalities, and where differences occur, it can help to deepen and nuance our shared work, not harm it. Once we unpack and express our issues, sometimes quite fiercely, work can continue better, and together. I think it has helped that there are some of us with strong conflict transformation modelling. We just pushed on for quite a few years and we had to go through the 'personal is political' conflicts, old movement relationship issues, work intergenerationally, and keep pushing the politics till sustainable change comes."

Personal conflicts that the women might have had… have become the organisational issue and then it becomes the organisational culture…

There were also divisions within the individual organisations themselves, of which the root causes were often impossible to identify as in other regions, but feminists have persisted: “I have been part of organising in many different groups; a lot of problems are things that were old tensions before you even got in the group and you do not even really know what it is about. People carry on these things. It has no worth. It could have been a long held misunderstanding like personal conflicts that the women might have had, and they have become the organisational issue and then it becomes the organisational culture… and before you know it you don’t work with these people and you do not even know why you do not work with these people. We try to really break open that stuff and this work continues by many. Its good. Healthy to keep trying so that is not what we carry into new generations of activists.”

The women in the Pacific explored how intersectionality can become a divider, rather than a unifying celebration of diversity.

Noelene explained that they had to add nuance to some of the shallow aged-based discussions where younger women were calling out the women who had been in the movement a long time but where: “…age is also interacting with ethnicity, class, heteronormativity, privilege and colour issues all the time. Inequality issues can arise from these differences - an activist’s age or time in the women’s groups and movement. The reality is that all the things that makes movements beautiful is also the stuff that potentially oppresses if under-acknowledged and under-analysed inside and between organisations. So once you change this from an intergenerational to an intersectional model, then it allows you to better work on the inequalities and movement fissures, and find commonalities rather than just shallow, single-dimension differences.”

There are lots of us in the past who would not have worked closely together, and we are now because we have to…

At the national level in Fiji, the DIVA for Equality Political Advisor explained that they are also taking a clear and explicit political grassroots approach to feminist organising, beginning with their Fiji feminist knowledge and sharing workshop.

“The reason why we use more grassroots and localisation language now, is because we wanted to put increased public attention to things that are difficult for Fiji and Pacific people to talk about – which is, we really do have differences between urban and rural and we really do have differences between heterosexual women and LBT women and gender non-conforming people, and women with disabilities. But people in general, even human rights and feminist activists, do not necessarily look at these as issues of class and inequality, non-inclusion, stigma and violation of human rights. Many still do not like to do this analysis, to change their work in the ways this lens demands, so to bring this front-and-centre as an issue of class and privilege in our country, in our region, has really helped us to move stronger local feminist work forward, and push each other as feminists to work in informal settlements, in public housing areas, and in rural and maritime areas.”

She further explained that younger Pacific feminist activists are more confident and comfortable to come into a room and hold their space, to say what they think about issues now. In the past, they would have just sat and listened to those seen as authority figures in movement spaces, and to raise issues from urban Suva for the whole country, on behalf of constituencies that you do not actually know well. She said that feminists now know from decades of work around the world, this is not possible. One has to be inclusive of constituency from non-hegemonic, urban spaces, to be present frequently and build community with them, to be accomplices in work, in order to accurately advocate on their behalf. Fiji Grassroots Feminist Network and the Women Defend Commons Network are some such groups extending that frame and localised work, over time.

Regional organising was a definite driver for positive change.

“We also have had a working group across the region [organising the Pacific Feminist Forum] including ourselves, Fiji Women’s Rights Movement (as secretariat), Tonga Leiti Association and femLINKPACIFIC and we were very deliberate with UN Women and other funding supporters about saying we want to have Melanesian groups, Polynesian groups, Micronesian groups, and to be intersectional in our representation in many ways. We were very deliberate on this. We have many lessons learned on how we can keep each other accountable and be there for each other to ensure a strong and inclusive regional feminist movement moment at the Forum. It is about all aspects – the Working Group, the narrative, the budget, the agenda, the entire process, the people in the room being open to challenge at the Forum itself.

Pacific feminists have done it twice now, so it is stronger and clearer each time... the Pacific feminist forum is stronger over time because we have themes that are close and deep to our movement. The first day was on solidarity, the second day was focused on resistance and the third was about revolution. When you bring people to go into that kind of thinking, about the level of change we need to bring real justice to ourselves and the world, you forget a lot of the silly, ego-filled angst and you are focused on the higher order thinking and feeling – what does that mean for the future of our feminist movement to be together in this Forum? How are we going to do it and practically what would that look like to produce a movement-focused Pacific Feminist Forum? Who has the skills and experience to do this piece/ What about that piece? Why did this not work, when we tried so hard? From all of our evaluations that we have seen come through, our intersectional and interlinkage frames of south feminism, really has helped us to keep the Pacific Feminist movement focused, growing, and strong.”

The over work of activists particularly in SIDS can very quickly kill souls…
What would an ecosystem of care look like? How do we do this in such an unjust, unequal world? Because we must.

“One of the things we are really concerned about was that the work around self-care… the over work of activists particularly in small island states, there is a capacity issue always and so if the organisation is not doing it right, then you can very quickly kill souls. How do we do this in such an unjust, unequal world? Because we must.”

Noting that activist work calls for resilience, she said DIVA for Equality have integrated many care economy aspects into their work: a well-being day off work every month into their workplan; a full month off over Christmas and New Year; a staff wellbeing fund for various needs; internal library with free access for staff and community and now also flexible start and end hours for LBT DIVA Management Collective activists with complicated care economy issues. There is also a monthly telephone tree to stay on top of any urgent issues between the main office in Suva with the nine autonomous hubs around the country. There are established processes for conflict transformation, and hub-specific focal points with training on feminist facilitation, praxis, and conflict transformation training. They have referral services to Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and are constantly building more tools and resources to create a national ecosystem of grassroots feminist activist care. This takes into account material needs of feminist activists, and structural concerns.

The Pacific women’s movement has also embraced their very rich third gender culture and the resilience work supports the specific challenges the LBTI faces as well: “In our networks we have a high rate of political challenge and conflict within the community because of long term trauma and damage, because of people who have been homeless from very early age and take trauma with them. Life in transient households builds both trauma as well as strength and street-smarts. So the telephone tree and other tools help to keep our management collective in touch with the LBT-led hubs, our other networks on climate justice, and to come up with quick and practical ways to solve problems, and if not easy to solve, to stay in touch as these issues are dealt with, over time and with care”.

More broadly, the DIVA for Equality political advisor says too they have happily noted development agencies and governments expanding the space and language to include LBT issues and groups, especially in Fiji, and over time in Pacific SIDS. This work is ongoing, with shifting political will:

“We are very clear about the kinds and the amount of effort we put in, over time, because you can very overloaded or tokenistic when included - especially if you are LBT group. In terms of support from UN Women Pacific for the work with LBT women and gender non-confirming people, the most exciting breakthrough is this design workshop we have to train Fijian grassroots LBT counsellors. A second breakthrough for us has been the ability to work with UN Women and Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC) in the EVAW protocol work, the national protocol work on sexual and gender-based violence. You need all the technical experts and they are certain NGOs here who are experts such as the FWCC over decades. What we bring and are now able to contribute, is expertise and experience in working on issues of violence against LBT women and intersex and gender-nonconforming people – what UN Women does is a good, genuine brokering exercise between us and those already involved in the National EVAW Protocol system, as we become ready and equipped as a movement to engage. We now have the evidence-based research report we produced over 2015-2019, and we are ready to move on this issue. So, it is really is a game changer for us from the last 20 years to be finally included in the protocol formally, and to feel that we can genuinely engage from a position of knowledge, tools, movement and expertise.”

Finally, since 2011 Noelene Nabulivou says that Pacific feminists have been steadily building expertise and work on climate and ecological justice, including insistence on a clear economic justice frame. “In the Pacific as climate frontline states, we … are working hard in Fiji, regionally and globally through our feminist social networks, to influence the agendas, to be there showing how Pacific women are already leaders in climate change response, and to insist that we must now urgently move away from fossil fuels, in order to be resilient and able to deal with already prevalent loss and damage to ourselves, and our island homes, just as you are there in the Caribbean.”