Hilda Lini, crusader for peace and women's rights


The name HILDA LINI has been synonymous with the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement, environmental issues and women's rights. An activist for progressive political causes since she began working for Vanuatu's ruling Vanua'aku Pati (then called the New Hebridean Cultural Association) as a teenager in high school two decades ago, she has also carved out impressive careers as a parliamentarian and journalist.
A younger sister of Father Walter Lini, who was ousted as prime minister last month, she succeeded him as editor of the party's newspaper, Vanua'aku Viewpoints, and established the South Pacific Commission Women's Bureau in Noumea. Later she returned to Port Vila and was elected Vanuatu's first woman member of parliament in November 1987. Often outspoken, last year she became editor of a glossy news magazine in Vanuatu, Pacific Island Profile. Although it had a promising start, it was forced to close earlier this year because of a lack of advertising revenue.
Sometimes an independent critic of her country's government, she laments the lack of influence by backbench MPs on policies. She also believes in an alternative media voice in a country where all news media are state-run and censored. DAVID ROBIE interviewed her in Port Vila.

What were the influences that drove you so young into political activism?

I became involved when I was at the British secondary school in 1970. When the Vanua'aku Pati's paper came out in 1971, I used to help out for Walter during the holidays. Later, we had to help him put the pages together. It was my earliest political awakening to politics — I was just 17 then.

Throughout my secondary education we used to have current affairs introduced into the class. My brother was very involved in the Vanua'aku Pati, and it made me involved as well in what we were fighting for.

Towards the end of 1973-74 some of us students attended political rallies. We stood up and asked questions. Several black Americans supporting the Vanua'aku Pati had arranged training scholarships for ni-Vanuatu. There were four of us. We had finished secondary school, and I was supposed to do journalism. However, when the scholarship finally came up, only two people went.

I went to Vila to help out. In February 1976 the party congress appointed me editor of Viewpoints. I had to do typing and look after fundraising records.

1975 was an important year for our struggle. It was when the Vanua'aku Pati won its first elections. The two colonial governments — Britain and France — tried to change the system to keep the status quo.

When you work for independence movements, more and more you see how , how colonial powers impose their control.

In 1977 I also became coordinator of the party's program which mobilised women for independence. At the same time, I was helping the youth program. We had demonstrations in Vila in support of the right for 18-year-olds to vote.

Two years later, I finally got my journalism training. With the help of an Australian Council of Churches scholarship, I went to the University of Papua New Guinea for my studies.

Have you been penalised in your political progress and career because you are a woman?

In September 1979 I interrupted my studies and came back to contest the elections in Port Vila. I found a lot of discussion involving some leaders that I should not be a candidate. These men used the women with whom I was working to go against my candidacy. One of the reasons for the opposition was because I was sister of the [then chief minister]. I voluntarily withdrew my candidacy. What happened then represented a weakness of women. They didn't suggest another woman to take my place, so the men grabbed the position. I re-enrolled at university, although I returned for the campaign in November.

Similar reasons kept me out of government posts after our election victory in 1979.

It is a problem faced by women throughout the world. In powerful places, they always want to give it to the men. Even today discrimination continues — not just with me, but also with other women.

I have proved a lot of people wrong in their assumptions about my being a sister of the prime minister. I criticise a lot of things that are not done the right way — both within the government and in the party. I speak out on issues such as the environment, development policies, women.

How did your journalism career develop?

When I came back from my studies in Papua New Guinea, I looked at setting up a new newspaper. It was called Nasiko — kingfisher, a sacred bird in our mythology. I saw the paper as a watchdog.

It started in January 1980 and closed six months later with financial problems. Although it started well, most of our income was from French advertisements. But by then the debate on independence was very strong, and French companies pulled out their ads.

My vision of a young nation fighting for a set-up where everybody benefits, with a better standard of life for indigenous people, was "not acceptable" to them.

What is your view about criticisms of a lack of press f opinion in Vanuatu?

There are not enough outlets for people to express themselves. This is one of the reasons that led to the starting up of Pacific Island Profile. We felt it was important to set up other newspapers. There is a tendency for the government media to only see things from the government's point of view. It is very healthy to have wider views, to learn from other people's mistakes and to see how others have been successful in development.

Government is concerned about the way information is portrayed . I don't think it has been trying to suppress information. There is a difference between my publication, where I say what I want, and a government publication. But I still have to be cautious about what I publish and how the ni-Vanuatu people react — we don't want them to feel confused, disturbed and frightened over big issues.

I believe that people should be given both sides of the coin.

I have written about the leadership issue. Some people think I shouldn't openly talk about that. But I disagree. Newspapers should offer something for people to think about.

Many foreigners who are new arrivals are unaware of our struggle, of what we fought for in the 1970s.

What about the new generation of ni-Vanuatu? Are those younger people who never experienced the struggle in the 1970s aware of the national roots?

True. People don't know what we fought for. We need ni-Vanuatu writers to write about our struggle so our people know their history. At the 19th anniversary of the party, the prime minister called for people to write our history. Parents should also be talking about what our struggle was about.

Last year we produced a big birthday book, Vanuatu: 10 Years of Independence, but I was surprised that it didn't touch much on our independence struggle.

Would you recall the years when you set up the Pacific Women's Bureau in Noumea?

It started in 1982, when the South Pacific Commission advertised for a women's program officer. I decided to apply — and I was challenged at home. I was the first ni-Vanuatu woman to become part of an international organisation.

At the time I was vice-president of the National Council of Women and very involved in the YWCA, Pacific Council of Churches and the NFIP. I had already built up a network of women around the Pacific, and now was a chance to push their concrete proposals.

However, when I got to Noumea, I found that the French were not very happy about my recruitment. I had been active in the independence ench in Vanuatu, I had supported the Kanaks, and I was against nuclear testing.

I was there for four years. We were not able to get enough funds for what we wanted to do. I could have stayed on, but the turning point came when I led a discussion at the UN Decade for Women NGO Forum in Nairobi.

I spoke up on the nuclear issue. I said that all the governments, churches, unions and women in the Pacific were against nuclear testing.

Is Vanuatu as committed to NFIP objectives now as it was at independence?

The Vanua'aku Pati had always correctly addressed the nuclear issue as being connected to the colonial issue. You cannot separate the environmental issues from the political context.

Vanuatu has not changed its position. But sometimes there are misunderstandings from outside our country. When our government has relations with the colonial countries, some people think wrongly that this might jeopardise our stand on NFIP.

What we need to think about since independence is how to safeguard our policy. People are now taking it for granted — that because the party in power is very supportive of NFIP objectives, the government will do it all for them. But the people need to be responsible for it as well.

Our policies are clear. We still support the people's right to self-determination in East Timor, West Papua and Kanaky.

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