Maiden Address in Parliament - Hon. Kiran
Assistant Minister for Women, Children & Poverty Alleviation
Monday, 13 February, 2023
By Hon Sashi Kiran
I wish to pay my respects to our people and say my Pranams and Bula Vinaka to all, including those who are watching on television or livestream.
I am honoured to stand in this august House as the Assistant Minister for Women, Children & Poverty Alleviation in the Coalition Government. And I am somewhat bewildered at the same time. I feel as if I have had the shortest political career ever.
I would like to thank the National Federation Party, my family, friends and the voters whose faith in me has brought me here. I would also like to pay a special tribute to the late Allen Lockington. Allen was a citizen activist and humanitarian of rare dedication. He supported me among many other brothers in my campaign, at a time when the political environment was challenging for me as a late comer.
I’ve come from the NGO sector. Many people know about FRIEND, the organisation I founded, with other committed people. I have more than two decades of experience working with rural communities and vulnerable families to provide them with social, economic and health empowerment opportunities.
Food security through organic agriculture and traditional food systems has been a core part of the work I have been involved in. My work with FRIEND has taken me to rural and peri urban communities in the West and North as well as Maritime areas. This has given me many insights into challenges faced by our communities.
My experience also includes disaster response and rehabilitation as well as trauma healing and peace building. I have served on many regional and international development boards over the last two decades that has also provided me global perspectives.
With that experience, I hope to work with every sector and agency who can work with our Ministry to achieve our goals and targets. Specifically these are
* income support to families to address poverty.
* policy interventions and improved services for older people, people living with disabilities, beggars and people living with mental health challenges and various other wards of the State.
I have always felt invested in this country's development. I strongly believe that through partnerships and using our existing skills and resources we can achieve sustainable development.
I felt I was already in a space where I could plan and deliver definitive outcomes. Although people asked me about politics I did not think i could survive in Government machinery and bureaucracy and achieve the wins I wanted. But here I am – and I guess time will tell!
My plan was on a FRIEND board member, the prominent lawyer and human rights activist, Richard Naidu, to be here in this House. My plan was for our many issues needing national attention could be raised through him. However political persecution of leaders like him, people who have committed their lives to this nation, forced me to change course. The many issues impacting our most vulnerable people had to be brought to a national level. The civil society sector was under attack from the previous Government, even though we were doing our best to provide relief and care to our communities in need.
So within days after the date of election was announced, I walked out of the organisation I had created and my political journey began.
Everything happened rather quickly, but here I am. I have a lot to learn about how the Government machinery works. I find it rather slow, I must say. I accept that the government must consult widely and I know it must be accountable and transparent with its money. I know that sometimes these things take time. But I would still like to find ways in which we can be more nimble and responsive to the needs of our most vulnerable people. It is not easy.
During the pandemic I worked extensively with the Commissioner Western’s Office to get resources to those affected both by the pandemic as well as various natural disasters. We worked across our networks with civil society organisations and faith-based groups. In those difficult days we tried to support the Ministry of Health even while the Government attacked and belittled us. So I had some idea of the problems in Government.
But Mr Speaker on coming into office I was still shocked at the neglect of our various Government facilities housing some of our most vulnerable people.
I have met teams at our Ministry headquarters and in the field. They are over worked and burnt out. Most buildings we occupy need urgent repairs. The air-conditioning doesn’t work. Landlords getting regular rent seem to be in no rush to fix the problems.
The IT systems don’t work. Many of the staff use their own recharge cards to call our clients. They have to deal with child protection, domestic violence and social protection programmes. Each of these needs research and attention to individual human beings. So there is a backlog because teams are over-stretched . We need better-resourced teams. We are talking to various development partners, looking for better ways to work together to improve our service delivery.
We have 94,600 recipients on social protection programs, Mr Speaker. Our financial support is rarely enough to allow people to live a dignified life where they can meet their potential. For many, welfare support should be temporary, to support them while they face challenges of unemployment or illness.
But there is no programme to help welfare recipients to move out of welfare and to new opportunities. I hope that we can work with the Ministry of Trade with their support towards micro enterprises. I would like us to do more with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Women in Agriculture programme, among others. We need to find ways to empower the poor and create viable livelihoods.
We recognize and hear the feedback from our clients, including our welfare partners, that the social welfare schemes need review and reform.
We have global commitments to report on under various international Conventions we have ratified. But these have to match the reality on the ground.
We have shocking rates of violence against women and children.
We have more street dwellers, many with mental health challenges. Easily accessible hard drugs are damaging our young population. We do not have drug rehabilitation facilities. We are not focused on our growing mental health crisis. We are grateful to partners like St Vincent De Paul and Daulomani Home that have stepped up to provide support to street dwellers.
We know that NCD-driven amputations are adding weekly numbers to people with disabilities, which means we must work with the Health Ministry to develop sustainable care programmes.
Late last year the previous Government announced the closure of the Golden Age Home in Lautoka with residents to be moved to Suva or Labasa. We have reversed this decision. We have now secured the former Ba Mission Hospital as a new care facility. However we will be challenged to fund the necessary renovations and this is my next priority.
Mr Speaker we have to look at how we care for children in our orphanages. Girls must leave them at the age of 18 but they are often ill-prepared for independent life. 12-year-old boys are placed in alternative care. I am thankful that St Christopher’s Home is now building a facility to accommodate the boys. We have started working with Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre to cater for girls leaving these homes to upgrade their life skills and find boarding schools for their education. Scholarships for tertiary education and foster homes could solve some of the challenges of these very vulnerable children. Path ways to foster care could also be greatly beneficial.
Mr Speaker I’m grateful that our Prime Minister has announced local government elections this year. This means we can begin to address many of the complaints I heard about during the election campaign. These include poor rubbish disposal and dump sites, poor drainage and stray dogs. I ask our youth and women in particular to rise to the occasion and become elected leaders in local government.
Almost all houses in Lautoka have been impacted in some way by Asian Subterranean Termite infestation. And this infestation has spread to Nadi, Ba, Tavua and the North. Many poor and vulnerable people are losing their homes to these infestations. I wish to acknowledge this government for recognising the challenge and committing to deal with it.
Mr Speaker I now want to talk about race relations and national unity.
We all saw, during the election and immediately after, the politics of race being played. Our people have paid dearly in past decades for this. I closely witnessed the events of 2000. I worked with many impacted communities. I started studying trauma healing. I participated in some difficult conversations.
I grew up in an Indo Fijian settlement. I had no education on cross-cultural learning. So to try and understand the culture, fears and pain of our indigenous communities was a steep learning curve.
Even now both indigenous and Indo-Fijian communities feel that they are victims of the other. They fear that the other will take away their resources or their sense of belonging.
When I started on this journey, I was shocked and a little ashamed at how little I knew about indigenous culture. I learned that to build better understanding and improve race relations we need to review our history.
I have discovered that if we try, we build stronger relationships. I wish to acknowledge the Vanua o Rewa and Gone Marama Bale Na Roko Tui Dreketi Ro Teimumu Kepa for enabling a healing journey to unfold in 2016. This culminated in the ceremony by which the Indo-Fijian people became the Luvedra Na Ratu. I wish to pay tribute to the Turaga Na Tui Noco, the late Ratu Isoa Damudamu, who gave us, the descendants of Grimitiyas, his identity, his i cavuti so we could truly belong to the Vanua of Viti.
I would also like to acknowledge the late Momo na Tui Vitogo Ratu Wiliame Sovasova, and Momo Na Tui Tavua, the late Ratu Nacanieli Uqeuqe for leading the Vanua of Ba to a Veisa ceremony in 2017, where they gave a kamunaga of protection to the descendants of Girmityas. I pay my tribute to and offer my condolences to the Vanua of Sukanacagi on the sad loss of Momo na Tui Vitogo.
For generations to come our physical features will link us back to our Girmitiya ancestors. In the 1990s I joined the board of CIVICUS, a global NGO. One of its leaders said he only had seen the rugby boys from Fiji. He said you don’t look like them. I had to explain our Girmit history to him.
Personally, I am quite comfortable with my identity as an Indo–Fijian, a person of Indian origin who belongs to Fiji. It’s not a common name that gives me the belonging I ached for. It is dialogue, learning and being accepted by the Vanua. I know our Coalition Government is committed to nation building, healing and ensuring that all people in Fiji belong.
I pray that the day comes soon when we are able to treat each other with humanity, love each other unconditionally and to build harmony. We all owe it to our country to help build Fiji. We all owe it to our values of humanity that no one sleeps hungry in our communities. I thank you for this time Mr Speaker.