In Fiji, lesbian feminist activist Noelene Nabulivou strives for world ‘liberated and free’

by Hugo Greenhalgh | @hugo_greenhalgh | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 13 May 2020 11:10 GMT

Noelene Nabulivou at her home in Nadera, Fiji, in 2019. Handout courtesy of Diverse Voices and Action (DIVA) for Equality

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Battling climate change and discrimination against the LGBT+ community, Noelene Nabulivou says challenges facing her island home are intertwined

By Hugo Greenhalgh

LONDON, May 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Growing up as a lesbian in the South Pacific nation of Fiji in the 1970s felt pretty much impossible, says feminist activist and climate change crusader Noelene Nabulivou.

A macho, church-based culture meant Nabulivou - herself the daughter of a Methodist minister - did not come out until she turned 35, not long after the start of the new millennium.

"I called it my millennium development goal," she said with a laugh during a Skype call, referring to a United Nations' list of ambitious global aims including halving extreme poverty and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015.

Now 52, Nabulivou is married with a wife and two-year-old daughter and is a world-renowned climate change activist who also campaigns for gender equality and LGBT+ rights in her homeland.

But she still endures discrimination and abuse, and has painful memories of growing up in a small town near Suva, capital of the archipelago nation of roughly 900,000 people.

"You just didn't feel (being openly gay) was a possibility for you. There were no role models, particularly for my generation," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from her home in Suva.

Fiji is one of only eight countries to explicitly mention sexual orientation and gender identity in its constitution, but in practice LGBT+ rights are limited.

Same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples remain illegal - Nabulivou and her wife married in New York - and homophobic attitudes persist.

"I've been spat at; (my wife and I) have had people harass us in public; we've had stones thrown at our roof at night. There have been many things over the years," Nabulivou said.

"I had a newspaper out me. I've had to fight the Methodist church on the radio and on TV, which was really hard to do as I'm a very private person," she added.

Noelene Nabulivou at a feminist workshop in Suva, Fiji, in 2019. Handout courtesy of Diverse Voices and Action (DIVA) for Equality

VIOLENCE OF 'EPIDEMIC PROPORTIONS'

Fiji was struck last month by severe tropical cyclone Harold, which killed at least two people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes.

The cyclone exacerbated the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, and the two crises have further aggravated the difficult situation faced by LGBT+ people in the country, Nabulivou said.

While Fiji's overall unemployment rate in 2019 stood at roughly 4.5%, according to figures from the International Monetary Fund, she said about 62% of the LBT (lesbian, bisexual or transgender) community are either unemployed or in precarious work.

It is this kind of inequality that Nabulivou fights in her role as political adviser, special projects, to Fijian human rights organisation Diverse Voices and Action (DIVA) for Equality, which she helped co-found in 2011.

"It started as a group of young people who came to my partner and I and said, 'Okay, we're being discriminated against... what can we do together?'"

A decade later, the group aids the work of nine LBT hubs around the country, addressing issues of visibility and poverty as well as homophobia and transphobia, Nabulivou said.

Trying to tackle "epidemic proportions" of violence against women - whether lesbian, bi, trans or straight - in Fiji and other Pacific island countries is a key part of her work, she added.

"Eighty-four percent of LBT women and gender non-conforming people (who do not typically behave in traditional male or female roles) have reported intimate partner violence," Nabulivou said, compared with around two-thirds of heterosexual women.

Besides gay rights and domestic violence, Nabulivou campaigns on climate and ecological issues and says many such challenges are connected.

"We are women who are also experiencing poverty, but also want to talk about bullying in schools or the experience of ecological development in the Pacific.

"There are many different things we care about as human beings," said Nabulivou, a self-confessed workaholic who says she has drawn fresh inspiration from her young daughter.

"I want a world for her that is amazing, in which she can be liberated and free."

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(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

((hugo.greenhalgh@thomsonreuters.com))

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