Rise Beyond the Reef: Empowering Over 250 Fijian Women In Over 14 Rural Villages
This is a story of strength, intentionality, and synergy rooted in a love for country, strengthened by a couple’s commitment, and growing through the work of a committed team. Aligning with our mission to empower people with the confidence to “sail,” we search the world for models, success stories of women empowering others. Your own potential is greater than you think.
At the age of 16, U.S. born Janet Lotawa came to Fiji and lived in a rural village through a service-learning program. Meeting her husband here really “anchored (her) heart in Fiji,” and they returned to the US focused on achieving the educational and financial goals that would allow them to return and build resiliency in women in its
rural villages. Sixteen years later, they returned to their Fijian communities and conducted base-line research to inform their program approach. “The biggest question we grappled with is how do we help women be safe in their communities,” shared Janet explaining the South Pacific’s 70% domestic violence rate. Women in rural, remote areas “…are interested in workshops on domestic violence, but desire even more to earn their own money, to have some security or feel fulfilled in other ways.”
Striving to understand the voice of those they wanted to serve led to Rise Beyond the Reef’s Program. In addition to the challenges of serving a community and running a non-profit organization, Janet and her team work to address and facilitate gaps caused by traditional road-blocks such as the lack of a market-value chain in marginalized communities, and working with communities based on isolation rather than artistic ability. “It’s been a very steep learning curve to figure out how to run a successful Arts and Crafts Income Generating Program,” Janet shares, with “…a lot of trial and error, a lot of commitment, and belief in the women I’m working with.” Rise Beyond the Reef has a three-folded approach for bridging such gaps: promoting the learning and relearning of traditional knowledge through contemporary arts training, partnering with communities and schools to plant source materials, and increasing access to sustainable agricultural technical training. Janet explains, “Our goal is to align and reflect the natural tendencies that are already in the communities.”
What does this look like in practice? A rural, village woman expresses a desire to join the program and, if she possesses the traditional knowledge, shares a piece of work to be reviewed. In examining the potential impact, questions such as the level of her ability, willingness to teach others, and total population of women in the village are defined. An agreement is forged whereby the woman agrees to produce a given amount each week and receive the program’s guarantee of purchase. Women not yet proficient in a skill receive ongoing mentoring to improve and are further encouraged through the program’s purchase at rates relative to the level of skill. “Our products are really high touch, low tech,” shares Janet.
Meet Kalesi, weaver, village nurse, local coordinator, village tourism
coordinator, and daughter of former village chief. She lives in Abaca, a village only accessible with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, two river crossings inland from the main city of Lautoka. Mother of three, she shares how she is able to provide for her family and grandchildren’s needs with the money she has earned, buying their school uniforms, gas for her stove, pots with handles, clothes for those in more remote villages, and a wheelbarrow which is used by all in the village with the money she has earned. Kalesi and three other families are awaiting reconstruction of their homes which were destroyed by Cyclone Winston in 2016.
Prior to working with Rise Beyond the Reef, Kalesi and the other village women would farm taro, sweet potato, and cassava roots and take them to the market every other week where they were sold for $1.00 per bunch. Going to market involved hiring a lift, spending the weekend sleeping on the market floor, and returning to the village late Sunday evening. Now, the women farm for their own consumption, meet every Tuesday in their village to make their artisan products together and teach each other, and are home to care for their families.
Rise Beyond the Reef has also built a kindergarten in the Abaca village, due to be inaugurated this coming week. The local kindergarten eliminates the practice of sending their young children to a nearby town where they must live away from their families until the school holiday to receive academic advancement opportunities. Kalesi is but one example of a dynamic, warm, humble woman whose partnership with Rise Beyond the Reef has led to increased leadership capacity, sense of purpose, financial freedom, and opportunities to empower women in more remote villages than her own. She is a steward of her own resources and an ambassador to her people.
Janet and her team sound like extra-ordinary people and they are! They had a vision, a dream, a goal on which they focused their time, energy, and resources. They have and continue to push outside their comfort zones, take risks, analyze practices, and make adjustments. They have progressed to work interdependently and in that capacity are growing and expanding impacting lives with their work and through their example. They provide proof that the vision of one CAN synergize and empower an ever-growing group to overcome cultural, societal, educational, transportation, economic, and isolation barriers building resiliency one woman, in one village, at a time.