By Devina Devi and Michelle Reddy
We vividly remember our very first interactions with Mere Roden and it’s her radiant smile and her fierce buiniga (traditional iTaukei hairstyle) that is etched in our memories. There’s a calmness and serenity that Mere radiates. It’s a silent yet powerful presence. One that absorbs you entirely. With Mere, there’s no presumed air of authority.
Fourteen years ago, Mere acquired physical disability following an internal injury. In 2010, with support from Kesa Vilisoni, she joined the disability sector as a volunteer at Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation (FDPF). Over the years, she has held many positions in the disability sector and the Fiji Table Tennis Association. In 2015, Mere took up a full-time job at the Spinal Injury Association (SIA), an affiliate of FDPF. Early this year, Mere was appointed by the His Excellency the President of the Republic of Fiji to be a member of the Fiji Electoral Commission. Currently Mere is the Chair of the national COVID-19 Steering Committee for the disability sector.
We both met Mere for the first time on two different occasions at the Fiji Women’s Fund. For Michelle, it was during the Steering Committee meeting in May 2017. Mere is a foundational member of the Fiji Women’s Fund, the first national women’s fund in the Pacific. She served on our Steering Committee from 2017 till 2020. During this time, Mere along with other members of the Committee provided strategic direction to the Fund from setting up operations, recruiting human resources, providing input into our grants mechanism and many other aspects.
Mere advocated the need for more flexible and adaptable resources for women’s groups who belonged to the Fiji Disabled People’s Federation and its four affiliates. It was Mere who guided the Fund Team in our application of the Fund’s very first special temporary measure of allocating a percentage of our funding for women living with disabilities. With Mere, we shared openly our limited knowledge and experience of working within the disability sector. Her advice and one that we continue to hold onto: don’t assume to know what is needed or wanted by people living with disabilities. Ask, always ask. As a Fund Team we learnt how to adapt our processes, procedures and ways of working to suit the myriad needs of women and people living with disabilities.
Devina first met Mere in March 2018 during our consultation with Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation (FDPF). Mere had introduced herself to Devina by stating that she hails from Lomaiviti. Traditionally, Mere shares the “tauvu” relationship with Devina which led to a jovial and respectful working relationship. One of the profound memories Devina has of Mere was when a skills training was being organised for the Spinal Injury Association (SIA) Women and Youth, Mere, unfortunately, had taken sick and was hospitalised. She was discharged a few days before the commencement of the training. Soon after being discharged, Mere had reported to her office to ensure that all the logistics of the workshop were properly organised and in place. We had advised Mere to rest and she responded, “this is my calling to serve the people and I will continue doing this for as long as I can.” Mere’s willingness to serve despite the pain she was going through is a great example of a servant leader.
Mere is well respected in the sports arena being a flag bearer for Fiji at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, a Pacific Games gold medallist and 2016 Fiji Sportswoman of the Year, Mere is a great ambassador for table tennis and its promotion as an inclusive sport. Notably, Mere was also the first Pacific Islander elected as the Oceania Athlete Representative on the Oceania Paralympic Committee (OPC).
What is less widely known and less written about is Mere’s contribution to women living with disabilities. Mere as part of the Spinal Injuries Association is a driving force behind their programs to support women with disabilities access to employment and livelihood.
In the last five years, Mere has seen an increase in women’s participation in SIA programs and the decision-making process. She has held multiple leadership roles from being on the FDPF Women’s Committee from 2014 to 2019 and the Executive Officer of SIA from 2015 – to date.
Though Mere doesn’t earn much and incurs high monthly transportation and medical costs, she continues to support other women with disabilities who are unable to find employment. Mere uses her tailoring skills and tie-dyes bedding and clothing which she sells to earn extra income to help support these women. “It’s painful to see young women with disabilities begging on the streets and many of them are struggling to have basic needs met.
Mere strongly advocates for more partnerships and collaboration with businesses to create inclusive and equal employment opportunities for people living with disabilities in Fiji. She said that
some persons with disabilities have found employment in the formal sector such as in the banking industry through SIA’s Disability Employ this Ability (IDEA) Program but there was still much more that could be done. Mere was also instrumental in securing a stall at the Suva City Council Market where women with disabilities could earn a living through entrepreneurship.
Working in the disability sector is both rewarding and challenging. According to Mere, the provision of mobility devices, medical consumables to persons with disabilities and helping someone live their best life is the most rewarding experience. “Appropriate transportation, access to services and facilities and lack of understanding among service providers are constant challenges. For example, I felt humiliated and deprived of facilities such as a bedpan and shower chair during my admission at CWM hospital,” says Mere. At the organisational level, among the biggest challenges faced by SIA is the lack of funding, which limits immediate effective service delivery to people in remote rural areas. The support from the Australian Government, Latter-Day Saints Charities, PhysioNet and the Pacific Rehab Foundation has greatly led to the provision of mobility devices for SIA members in Fiji. But there is still a lot more that can be done to ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights to persons with disabilities and promotes respect for their inherent dignity.
Inspired by Mere’s unwavering passion for disability rights, Devina and I are committed to advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities. This International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), 3 December 2020, join us by supporting the Spinal Injury Association and affiliate members of the Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation to promote the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities and to take action for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society and development.
The Spinal Injury Association of Fiji (SIA) is an arm of the Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation that aims to improve the lives of people living with a physical impairment in Fiji through services including provision of mobility equipment, employment schemes and advocating for the rights of disabled people.
About the authors
Devina is a Program Officer at the Fiji Women’s Fund and has vast experience in capacity building and community development. She has worked extensively with community groups, women’s groups and youth networks in her previous roles at the University of the South Pacific, FRIEND, Fiji Ministry of Women and Social Welfare and the Ministry of Youth and Sports.
Michelle Reddy is a Pacific women’s rights feminist activist. For over 10 years, she has worked in the area of gender equality and human rights in Fiji and the Pacific. Having worked in previous leadership positions at the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, Pacific Centre for Peacebuilding and Leadership FIJI and Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development, Michelle now leads one of the very few women’s funds in the Pacific region: Fiji Women’s Fund.