Women’s Voice and Representation in the Legislature in Fiji: Opinion on the Involvement of FWRM Staff and Board Members in Elections

- By the FWRM Board -

December 19, 2013

Introduction

The FWRM policy states that any staff or board member who wishes to stand as a candidate in municipal or national elections must inform the Executive Director and the Management Board. This formality needs to occur before any public declaration of candidature is made or immediately after their submission of writ of nomination. For FWRM, a public declaration of intention, whether explicitly or implicitly, electronically or otherwise, shall require that the member must take a temporary leave of absence without pay, until the election results are known. The policy also states that the FWRM staff or board member will resign within seven days if they are successful in the elections. If they are not successful, then they may resume their position. This policy was developed after consultations with staff members and drawing on experiences and policies of regional and international human rights and feminist organisations. We define a “standing down period” as taking a leave of absence without pay, for a short period.

The FWRM policy also indicates that:

    • All staff and management board members must be aware of their responsibilities to FWRM if they are engaged in party political activity, either at a local or national level.
    • Their employment and board membership with FWRM carries with it a requirement to act in a non-partisan manner with regard to matters relating to the business of the FWRM.

There is an important distinction between supporting the increase of a critical mass of women in the legislature and supporting individual women to win a seat in Parliament. The former is a public interest issue, whilst the latter is a personal interest matter. FWRM as an organisation supports the former, and not the latter. Supporting individual women as an organization, whether staff or otherwise, runs the risk of FWRM being seen as party political partisan and, most importantly, runs the risk of having to choose between women, even between excellent women candidates, as an organization.

In 2006, FWRM raised funds for all women candidates, regardless of ethnicity and party political affiliation, and shared the funds equally between all of them. We lobbied and encouraged the electorate to vote for more women through a paid media campaign. In our respectful view this conclusively demonstrates our bona fides, that we do support getting more women into Parliament. The 2006 election saw an unprecedented number of women, 8 out of 71 or 11%, win seats in the national legislature.   We also assisted some women members of parliament with research, and on request, would also assist in writing oral submissions in matters important to gender and human rights. The subsequent interruptions to lawful government put paid to that win for women.

In 1993 FWRM also hosted a Roundtable for Women in Politics (WIP),  with the regional NGO, Asia Pacific Women In Politics (APWIP), with funds from The Asia Foundation. FWRM got the WIP project functioning as a project, and then handed it over to the National Council of Women (NCW), which then formed its NCW-WIP project with our initial support. This was a deliberate decision on our part, and was in recognition that we did not want to be a “women in politics” organization, and that we wanted to focus on other aspects of women’ rights. We wanted to do things that we were good at, and not spread ourselves out too thinly. Most importantly, we wished to retain our neutrality and non-partisanship, and our ability to work with, and lobby whichever political party won government. This neutrality has stood us in good stead, in 25 years of activism.

We note that the human rights framework is about rights as well as responsibilities, and write this opinion in the hope that it will be better understood once is it explained. It is entirely consistent with human rights principles to require a staff member or Board member to voluntarily stand down, in order to protect the human rights of a large mass of women. FWRM is a non-partisan organization not aligned to any political party or candidate. It is not like Emily’s List in the USA, which is a women’s fundraising organization, dedicated to getting more Democratic Party women into the Senate. FWRM’s independent and politically neutral stance allows us to work with all political parties and groups, and enables us to lobby and advocate for Fiji women as a group, beyond elections. Aligning with any political party or political candidate would gravely jeopardize this non-partisan stance.

Simply put, the greater goal of getting more women into Parliament, would be at riskif FWRM specifically, whether directly or indirectly, supported staff or Board members in their pursuit of getting into the national legislature.

Rationale for the Policy

There are several very practical and ethical reasons why FWRM, Amnesty International Australia, the International Commission of Jurists, amongst other human rights organisations, require their staff to resign or step down when a staff member decides to stand for elections. FWRM went a further step and allowed, Leave Without Pay and the extremely generous option of resumption of employment if unsuccessful, in our policy. It is a clear, human rights position based on past experiences and sound gender equality and human rights theory.

First, gender equality and feminism is about dealing with the structured inequality and the oppression of women. The greater goal of gender equality and having women's voices heard in the public domain and decision making is a higher goal than that of an individual woman’s right to stand for elections (which is a personal interest goal). In order to decide between potential conflicting rights, it is necessary to adopt a human rights analysis. This analysis requires one to assess the perceived relative harm to both the individual and the organisation. There is a greater harm to the organization in being seen to support an individual's campaign, as it will be to the greater detriment of the wider group of women the organization purports to represent. To illustrate this human rights analysis down to a very basic level consider the following scenarios:

  1. Two women staff members of FWRM belonging to 2 different political parties decide to stand.  In the Fiji case with the proposed electoral seat system, women will be competing with each other, and with other men for the one vote. If we were to keep both women employed until the elections finish, apart from the very real danger of splitting the organization into several competing factions, whom should FWRM support? Should FWRM choose between them? Or should FWRM maintain its rational policy of keeping a distance, requiring a staff member to step down and thereby keep its political integrity and its support of women in general intact? Which position is most likely to enable the sustainability of the organization, and to enable it to carry on its overall work for Fiji women?
  2. FWRM has a variety of women staff, Board members and members. They belong to all political persuasions and they support a wide variety of political parties. We believe in free political expression and freedoms as allowed by the International Bill of Human Rights. However we do not support, directly or indirectly, political parties or even independent candidates, to enable all kinds of women to continue to be members of FWRM, so that we can garner support across all racial, ethnic, cultural and political lines. That is political non- partisanship. If we chose to support a staff member we would therefore run the risk of losing other members. Again, the greater detriment and harm would be to the organization as a whole.
  3. Suppose for example, we were to directly or indirectly support a staff member, continue to employ her whilst she campaigned (and possibly run the risk of her making a variety of statements to win, which FWRM may or may not agree with), who then went on to lose? Suppose her opposing candidate or opposing party member wins, perhaps becomes a Minister (of Women?) and then refuses to meet with FWRM or support a policy or law that we need to pass for women, because we supported the rival opposing candidate? That is human nature. By displaying partisanship we would have naively jeopardized a law or policy that promotes the human rights of all Fiji women, because we were ill advised and supported a staff candidate.

We trust that these 3 scenarios well illustrate the potentially disastrous consequences of political partisanship.

Second, from a human rights perspective, the right to political participation is not an absolute right as are the right to life, liberty, security, fair trial of the person etc. It is a relative right and needs to be balanced against the rights of others, and against other rights potentially in conflict. An FWRM staff member’s individual right to political participation is not superior to FWRM's collective right to act on behalf of thousands of women/our constituency or the rights of thousands of women for whom we act, to have unbiased and non-partisan representation (whether real or perceived). Rights end up being in conflict which each other all the time, and they need to be reasoned out according to whether they are absolute or relative rights and according to a set of rules, about harmonization, reasonableness, the greater good, greater harm and so on, outlined above and below.

Third, a staff member’s right is predicated on the deliberate choice one makes to stand for elections. An employer has no obligation to pay or retain a staff member when he/she declares their candidacy and campaigns. But it is good practice for employers to offer women a standing down period that may include several options such a  ”taking leave without pay”,  and the right to return to work if he/she were unsuccessful in the elections.  This is clearly articulated in the FWRM policy. The right to participate as a candidate in elections is not synonymous with an obligation on an employer to “support” the means for exercising that right. We need to clearly distinguish between a right exercisable in a public space, and the rights extant in a private sphere.

Fourth, one has to, as far as possible, give effect to both rights adopting an interpretation that allows both to co-exist as much as possible without doing harm to either, or at least the minimum amount of harm. So the solution is to allow a staff member/employee to be able to stand and campaign without prejudice to an employer's private right to terminate or suspend that employment, because the former is not dependent on the latter and while universal it's exercise is dependent on choice. Once that is made, an employer is under no further obligation to provide employment and an employee must accept the consequences of his/her choice.

Fifth, as an organization reliant on donor funding and members’ contributions, we have an accountability to ensure that as a non-partisan organisation there is no perceived or real conflict that the funds we receive are being used for carrying out our work on gender equality, without any perceived or real bias towards any political party or candidate. Continuing to employ a candidate would put that independence and accountability at risk.  

Conclusion

It is clear from the backlash against FWRM that the human rights framework needs more elucidation, and that our role as an organization is not clear to many. FWRM is not a partisan NGO dedicated to getting more women into parliament. Even Asia-Pacific Women in Politics (APWIP)  and the Center for Asia Pacific Women in Politics  (CAPWIP) which are, support all women, and not individual women. Emily’s List supports only women from the US Democratic Party;  the same way that Emily's List Australia supports only women from the Labour Party. These are different types of women’s organizations. We are none of these. Giving women voice in the national legislature is only one of many human rights that FWRM seeks to protect, promote and defend.  We do not give it precedence over any other human rights of women. If we did, we would have mobilized around this issue differently, and been a different kind of women’s rights organization.

FWRM as a public interest women’s organisation strongly supports all aspiring female candidates. Our overriding duty is to the large numbers of women FWRM purports to represent, who have a right to expect non-partisanship from us.

We wish all women who will stand in the up-coming general national elections the best of luck!

ENDS.