One of our diverse SOGIESC #RealLifeHeroes is Lavetanalagi Seru, a member of Rainbow Pride Foundation’s Secretariat. Lavetanalagi Seru (he/him) currently manages the SOGIESC inclusion in DRR and humanitarian action, and is based in Suva, Fiji. Rainbow Pride Foundation advocates for the rights of LGBTIQ+ people in Fiji in multiple ways, including empowering the LGBTIQ+ community to engage in democratic processes.
What inspires you to advocate for social change?
I guess being a part of the LGBTQI community myself I have come to understand and see firsthand, the multiple forms of inequalities that LGBTQI community members face on a daily basis within their homes, schools, communities and in public spaces [both online and offline] had driven me into this work, especially the multiple forms of stigma and discrimination that takes place on a daily basis.
I have also seen the many opportunities and the strengths that the LGBTQI community members have had to offer and contribute to within the many different spaces and communities that they work in and that also sort of drive me to do the work that I do.
I like to share our stories and of how we [LGBTQI] contribute to society in many meaningful ways, stories of resilience and strength. These stories are hardly shared, and as I continue to advocate for social change and SOGIESC inclusion in the various policy and decision making spaces – there is slowly recognition of what it means, that there is “strength in diversity” – especially as we continue to work to build a much safer and inclusive Fijian society.
What is your experience with humanitarian disasters?
I have been engaged in the disaster preparedness work at sub national and national levels, and also in disaster response and recovery. For instance, I am currently engaged in the TC Harold and COVID-19 response work, where our organizational is working with key partners to ensure that in their respective response activities and programmes are inclusive of LGBTQI people.
Before these disasters took place, I have been engaged in facilitating trainings with other organizations to ensure gender and social inclusion within emergency operation centres. This is at sub national level [district and divisional level] where I facilitate the SOGIESC inclusion in DRR training for civil servants from various Government Ministries and agencies – who are called to be part of Emergency Operation Centres, which are usually activated during times of disasters. These trainings offers an opportunity for participants to understand more about the differential needs, vulnerabilities, risks and challenges that LGBTQI people in peaces times and that is further exacerbated during times of disasters.
I have also facilitated trainings for different partner organisations that work in the DRR & humanitarian sector, where we push for these organisations to adopt SOGIESC transformative work approaches, inclusive programmes – identifying the gaps within policies and practice [that would have limited engagement and/or discriminated against LGBTQI people] and also gaps within data collection tools used by these organisations and its staff. It offers an opportunity for staff to be considerate of context appropriate approaches that uphold the principle of “Do No Harm” as they work with LGBTQI community members and to design and implement interventions that integrates and embeds strong SOGIESC inclusion lens.
At the national level, I have been engaged in the review of national policies and legislations on Disaster Risk Reduction – where as an organization we have been pushing for SOGIESC inclusion to be integrated, where LGBTQI issues are addressed, because over the years – we have a lack of coherence between our national laws and policies when it comes to human rights.
How did you become involved in supporting LGBTIQ+ people in humanitarian contexts?
I guess, I have had to learn on the job, but have been exceptionally blessed to have a great team at the office who support the work I do. Understanding the social and cultural context and talking directly with LGBTQI community members are critical and has been something I have slowly built upon. I have sometimes had to be in a room and be the lone voice for the LGBTQI community – where as much as fear sometimes overwhelms me – I have to remind myself of the many LGBTQI people whose lives depends on what I say or choose not to say [if I decide to remain silent] in these spaces, and over the years – I have slowly grown out of the introvert that I am, especially when talking about LGBTQI rights and equality in these difficult spaces.
How long have you been involved in this work?
I have been involved in this work with RPF when I joined in March 2018. During my initial few months when I joined RPF, I worked briefly on an activity that stemmed from the Down by the River Research – which was the initial stages of identifying how to work with Faith Based Organizations, but have been part of the human rights advocacy work going back to 2014 – when I was still a University student.
What are some of the challenges you face in advocating for more inclusion in the humanitarian system?
Some of the challenges have been around the pushback on LGBTQI rights and equality work – and this I guess, stems from the fear and also the lack of knowledge about LGBTQI people. This is not something that has been experienced with individuals alone but also some organizations – which have for years worked in communities and has had a certain modus operandi – and to bring in these “uncomfortable” conversations – there is a perception or assumption that it will affect how they continue to work within these communities.
If there was one change that you would like to see for LGBTIQ+ people, what would that change be?
The change I’d like to see is more LGBTQI community members actively and meaningfully engaged in all the phases of disaster risk management – in initial disaster preparedness, response and recovery – where they are able to inform the interventions that considers their needs and challenges, and where together we build a more safer and inclusive Fijian society.
What are ways can humanitarian and development organisations support LGBTIQ+ inclusion?
Some of the ways that humanitarian and development organizations can support SOGIESC inclusion is by consulting and working closely with organizations such as RPF and other LGBTQI organizations who have had years of experience working with communities on the ground.
They can also begin to incorporate SOGIESC inclusive practices and policies and work towards ensuring that their programmes and activities become SOGIESC transformative in the sense that its programmes, practices, policies and interventions addresses the root causes of inequalities, transforming harmful societal, heteronormative and cultural norms, relations and roles.