Climate change is a very personal issue especially for Maria Nailevu, having grown up in a rural and remote island, of Taveuni, an island located, north of Fiji. As a child, she has seen the many devastating impacts of disasters, whereby almost every year they experience cyclone and flooding, which today, continues to be exacerbated by climate change, rising sea levels, and warming of the oceans.
She recalls very clearly those days after every disaster that struck Taveuni, how her parents will be standing next to a pile of rubble which was once their home, wearing a painful face and totally unsure of how they were going to recover, given that fact that her step-dad was just a villager and her Mum, an ordinary housewife.
For Maria, her lived experience has now translated into direct work, on gender and climate change with a feminist and community -led organization – (DIVA) Diverse Voices & Action for Equality, which under its work stream, promotes Social, Economic and Ecological Justice.
“I feel passionate and determined that this work will address many injustices that our diverse communities have been experiencing for a very long time. An interesting aspect of our feminist work is that we address the gaps, that the government and other relevant stakeholders overlook especially within climate actions.” , she says
Her identity as a Pacific Islander, LBTI, rural and remote woman makes her one of the most vulnerable groups to the growing impacts of climate change, and she believes this will also require her as a radical feminist and activist, to work assertively in transforming their vulnerable narrative to creative and practical solutions.
“I feel more empowered and personally connected through our DIVA led -‘Women Defend the Commons” campaign because it focusses on the affirmation of diverse women’s role in development, direct voices of communities, promotion of universal human rights, protection of our natural resources and the affirmation of women and community’s direct role towards climate solutions”.
While DIVA for Equality is a very small local led collective, they have established links to over 800 groups in all regions. Linking their local work to regional and global spaces is critical, and that requires, people like Maria to engage at global spaces, such as the yearly UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP), and this years COP23 will be Maria’s third year following the climate change negotiations processes, with a particular focus on gender and human rights.
Sharing on her experience, she says that, “attending COP is always a big and challenging moment, where my activism work enables me to carry the direct voices of my community and speak truth to power. It also provides many learning opportunity that allows me to share back into our diverse communities.”
Some of the personal achievements for Maria, is how the 2 years of direct work on gender, climate change and disaster risk reduction (DRR), have vastly developed her personal capacity, and has given her a deeper understanding and connection to the work on Gender & Climate Justice.
Other highlights, with her being part of the Pacific Urgent Action Hub for Climate Justice, is the growing online membership of the hub, with around 3040 followers, from Fiji and across the region, which earlier this year, launched it’s “Just Transition to a Plastic Free Pacific”.
Their “Women Defend the Commons Campaign” has reached out to some key rural and remote areas like Levuka and Taveuni. As part of the collective, they are building social movements that are key in progressing the Climate Justice work, with projects such as, better waste management, promoting sustainable development, and plans to support women towards hosting their first ever march and campaign towards a cleaner and a plastic-free Taveuni.
In 2018 the collective is also planning to pilot ‘Women Talanoa’ in Taveuni where women can create their own safe and empowering space to share struggles, analysis and strategies using the concept of feminist circle, to discuss issues of violence, women empowerment etc and if successful to be replicated to other remote areas in Fiji.
A testament of progress of the organization, of which Maria is part of, in amplifying gender and climate change, in Fiji, the Pacific region and the wider international community, is seeing an increase in invitations from organizations and networks for DIVA to speak on gender and climate change at public events, and invitations for collaboration efforts towards climate justice with other stakeholders.
This achievements and highlights, however does not overshadow the challenges that still remain.
“There’s an obvious disconnection within our community in terms of climate change and gender knowledge and consultation process. Many of our rural, remote and urban poor communities are clueless on the impacts of climate change and knowing how they can cope with the impacts of climate change. There’s a high need of decentralised funding and community education, at grassroot level so they can be empowered towards designing their own solutions.”
Furthermore, Maria shares that, “… weak gender responsive policies and heteronormative systems and structures that discriminates many vulnerable communities such as LGBTQI, Disabilities, Sex Workers, Elderlies, Single Mothers etc from accessing equal services still exists, for example, during Cyclone Winston, many vulnerable communities were excluded from accessing government’s assistance because it’s only designed for families meaning husband, wife and children. It becomes discriminatory because every household were impacted similarly yet only some were helped while others had to rebuild their lives at their own cost and resilience.”
Another challenge she experienced under the “Women Defend Common’s Campaign”, for example in Taveuni, was in terms of progressing the women’s work on waste management, and the existence of structural barriers within government, provincial agencies and landowners. Their traditional protocols and processes created many challenges towards creating positive social and economic change for the people, especially for women.
She also noted how women were always the first ones to respond during disasters, and trusted to take leading role in rebuilding communities, yet their voices are never recognised and acknowledged within community decision making and pursuing climate actions. This inequalities is what will drive her and her colleagues to work more into addressing, with the cooperation of all parties.
It’s a challenging and at times exhausting work, but one that, for people like Maria, dedicate their life and time for, to secure a better, greener, and safer planet for all including the vulnerable and marginalized of communities, and most importantly, our future generations.