CANBERRA — Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, an adviser for the Shifting the Power Coalition, calls herself a “feminatrian” and is inspired by the women in her life to build the capacity for all women in the Pacific to take a real leadership role in humanitarian responses — including women in regional communities, women with disabilities, and the next generation of women leaders who will help decide their own fate.
In this work, she is supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and ActionAid Australia, along with a range of local organizations and women leaders who aim to build the existing power and knowledge of women as emergency responders.
The coalition seeks to transition traditionally male-led humanitarian responses into ones that are inclusive and localized. Bhagwan Rolls spoke with Devex about the approach the coalition is taking in changing the humanitarian leadership landscape.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the key message you want to share about being a woman working in the humanitarian sector?
I call myself a feminatrian, as in a feminist humanitarian. That describes my own personal politics in the Pacific Islands as a Pacific Island feminist, but also through the work we are doing collectively through the Shifting the Power Coalition.
The message we want to communicate is not just let’s acknowledge women or recognize women — the message for us is to learn together and organize together to shift the power through a feminist lens and feminist practice.
We need to transform the process.
My message is based on our collective experience as Pacific Island women living in countries that are vulnerable to climate change-induced disasters. But we also need to communicate about transforming language. Women, especially women with disability and our younger women, should not simply be cased as ‘the vulnerable group’. So I want to transform the language.
How is the coalition working to transform this message and aim into action?
With the humanitarian agenda, there are many different types of organizing. In its first two years of formation, the coalition was able to map out women’s experiences and expertise that we would be building upon — through indigenous knowledge, the work with traditional leaders, the work with faith-based leaders, peacebuilding practice, disability knowledge, as well as what young women see as the kind of political space that they need to be able to participate as equals.
By the time we have rolled out Shifting the Power with the support of DFAT last November, we had a very clear roadmap on how we can organize and collaborate as a coalition to amplify and make women more visible.
As a coalition, Shifting the Power brings women leaders together who have been first responders. We want to build up their leadership and agency at the country level.
Communication and advocacy are very clear focus for us — and that is my background as well coming out of media and broadcasting at home. We need to look at what messages need to go to different audiences all the time.
What are the biggest challenges for the coalition’s agenda?
My concern is the general roll-back on women’s rights that’s taking place globally and coming up in all the spaces where we are tracking gender equality. We have so many commitments to gender equality in the Pacific, but I often wonder why is it that we are still having to remind leaders of the need to articulate it.
State actors must take responsibility for the agenda of women’s rights, gender equality, disability rights, of young women’s inclusion. We have a suite of commitments — treaties, conventions, Security Council resolutions — that have been adopted. But they very easily forget them. So they have to take better accountability to not be asking us — as the feminists and women — to rationalize our involvement in these processes.
The fact that we are still having to keep track of that, rather than intergovernmental processes enabling it is one of my concerns.
We’re also struggling to get the resources to make the commitment a reality. Every couple of years we have to remind people what has been happening. When people come into our region to do work, they should be accountable for the work that is already existing on the ground, and we have to avoid some of the competition around the delivering of programs. There needs to be investment in the local capacity of the women because that is going to sustain what will happen in our communities if you want to build resilience.
What are the programs the coalition is currently working on that you are particularly excited about?
One of our key highlights in the past year has been in bringing the leadership of the shifting the power coalition to the first Pacific Resilience Meeting that took place in Suva. That was really, really important because it gelled together this coalition of commitment and collaboration and being able to prepare ourselves with our messages, and being able to have visibility in a space where women aren’t often in attendance.
Through Shifting the Power, we are taking women’s rights and gender equality and disability rights into the humanitarian space as well. Through the training of trainers, we are helping member organizations to bring young women in and look at greater accountability for gender equality and disability rights. At the country level, we are furthering research to graft a series of key messages for the various actors to say how we can help be accountable to the equality agenda.
In advocating and supporting women of all walks of life, who inspires your work?
From my own feminist journey, it has to start with my mother who got me started. The other person who inspires me is my daughter. The modality of our own intergenerational learning experience that is important.
Across the sector, I have been lucky to meet women leaders in my own country, in the Pacific, even at the global level. And I have been very lucky to meet amazing women rural leaders who have not only responded to disasters like Tropical Cyclone Winston in 2016, but have also been willing to challenge the status quo and be open to shifting the power by realizing that feminist concepts are not foreign or scary but transformative in their own homes and communities.
These are very brave women who are standing up all the time to the status quo in their own way — and they’re often not visible enough.