Phylesha Brown-Acton fits the description of a modern-day superhero. Coming from a place of selflessness, she is a tireless champion for the rights of sexual minority groups within the Pacific and her passion is infectious.
Fakafifine of Niuean decent, in her many roles Phylesha challenges the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude held by many in the Pacific and firmly plants the rainbow flag within fertile soil.
In her current professional role she is developing a GLBTI programme with a strong focus on the Pasifika community. As the project coordinator for the Pacific Islands Safety and Prevention Project, she strives to create a support service that has a holistic approach to wellbeing and health, family, personal development, research and pastoral care.
“Earlier in the year we were able to conduct action research with Te Puni Kokiri Action researchers and assess the needs of Pasifika sexual minority groups, consulting with Fa’afafine, Akava’ine, Fakafifine and Leiti, the first research of its kind in New Zealand.”
The current situation in the Pacific is problematic at best, with homosexuality illegal in ten nations and discrimination rampant. It is the tireless work of strong people such as Phylesha that pushes these issues into the spotlight.
“Countries are struggling to adopt international principles as they see them being detrimental to culture and tradition. Sexual minority groups struggle with the little resources made available to them and it is often two steps forward five steps back. Most GLBTI groups still press on with all the issues and try their utmost to gain some kind of traction.
“The required assistance for sexual minority groups in the Pacific is to take them from being small community-based groups to being established entities set up in their own functioning community centres. Enabling this to happen will allow the advocacy and work to be taken more seriously by government and will place them in a more viable position to function. Pacific rainbow organisations have functioned on the ground for over 20 years and the time is ripe for a more formal structure to be set in place.”
In another of her many roles she is a technical advisor to the Pacific Sexual Diversity Network, advocating and supporting issues relevant to sexual minority groups within the Pacific. Cultivating long-standing relationships with Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Cook Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Hawaii and American Samoa, she continues to lobby rainbow groups in other Pacific Island countries and territories to join the membership of the network.
“Stigma, discrimination and many other forms of abuse against rainbow communities in the Pacific are prevalent in all countries but Melanesian countries seem to face and endure the worse forms of abuse. In Papua New Guinea with its high prevalence of HIV, there are murders by clan law for being perceived as gay, HIV-positive or transgender; and there are brutal beatings of sex workers in places like Fiji. Groups in Fiji seem to be better resourced and structured as a lot of international agencies are based there. The biggest battle in Melanesian countries is the fight against HIV – numbers are highest in Papua New Guinea. UNAIDS has based an office there to combat the pandemic issue and highlight the rights of sex workers and human rights principles.”
Phylesha had the privilege this year of attending the 57th Commission on the Status of Women Conference hosted by UN Women, the largest conference the United Nations holds annually. With just over 6000 women and girls from all over the world in attendance, this year’s conference was focused on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.
Phylesha says that in light of this, the New Zealand NGO delegation presentation was focused around indigenous practices with regard to addressing family violence in New Zealand.
“It was really awesome to be involved in the negotiation process as a lobbyer and supporter of women and girls issues in New Zealand and globally.
“The UN system is a very complex, but fascinating. It really opens your eyes up to how high level these conferences are and to listen to the many women and girls talk about the realities of rape, violence, trafficking, many forms of abuse, caste systems, pressures to abort unborn female babies, how many churches play a huge role in decision-making which often place women in a far more vulnerable position within society, the equal pay argument between man and woman, women in positions of power and the need for an increase, with only five per cent of women globally sitting in positions of power.
“What was alarming though was the number of men who represented on behalf of their countries to not support women and girls issues in their respective countries and globally; the conference has been referred to in passing as ‘wo=men’.”
Phylesha is the kind of woman that will be written into the history books, a true unsung hero who is humble in nature; she is a woman that we need on our side.
“I have become immersed in this work not by choice, it’s almost like I was guided somehow into doing it and it keeps me passionate and I understand it. I breathe it, I love it, I value it and I have embraced it as it has done me. It has also opened my eyes up to many levels of suffering and forms of abuse my [GLBTI] brothers and sisters face in our Pacific countries and knowing that hurt is another driver that keeps me strong and focused.”
Phylesha comes from a place of understanding, “I have often faced more stigma and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation than I have with my cultural identity. My ethnicity and culture never gets questioned like my gender identity and sexual orientation does!”
So goes the Maori proverb, Naku te rourou nau te rourou ka ora ai te iwi; With my basket and your basket the people will live.
| Sarah Murphy