Many women activists in Fiji will remember Ruth Lechte, one of the founders of the local YWCA and a forthright campaigner on behalf of women’s rights and other political causes. She was a formidable personality who also turned her offices on the first floor of the old Suva Town Hall into a campaign headquarters to fight the French nuclear tests in the Pacific in the late 1960s and early 70s. The following tribute – written by Ruth’s equally well known colleague, Anne Walker – appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald:
RUTH LECHTE, 1932-2012
Ruth Lechte … feminist, activist, environmentalist and supporter of women’s rights.
In 1962, Ruth Lechte and Anne Walker went to Fiji at the invitation of a group of local women to be the first staff of the Fiji YWCA. With Fijian Amelia Rokotuivuna and women leaders, they worked throughout the 1960s establishing multiracial kindergartens and more than 50 youth and women’s clubs.
The Fiji YWCA was instrumental in supporting and organising the Pacific region’s nuclear-free movement after nuclear tests started at Mururoa, French Polynesia, in 1968. The women joined students from the newly formed Pacific Theological College and the University of the South Pacific to organise one of the first marches in Suva against the tests.
The YWCA was also deeply involved in activities leading to Fiji’s independence. In 1970, Lechte, Rokotuivuna and Walker were honoured with the Fiji Independence Medal. and, when Rokotuivuna took over as general secretary of the Fiji YWCA in 1974, Lechte became Pacific Area secretary of the World YWCA.
She advised women’s groups, independence movements and youth initiatives throughout the region, working with women in several Pacific countries. Later she moved to the international portfolio of environment and appropriate technology.Based in Geneva, in Switzerland, and Nadi, in Fiji, she contributed to women’s small business and service initiatives in more than 80 countries.
She also served on the board of the Environment Liaison Centre, Nairobi, Kenya, and with the World YWCA and the International Women’s Tribune Centre, organised displays on women’s technologies and science during the non-government organisation forums at the United Nations World Conference on Women meetings in Nairobi in 1985 and Beijing in 1995.
After her retirement, Lechte worked on an environment education program for the Fiji Environment Department, was a trustee for Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and the Fiji Traditional Healers Association (Wainimate), and supported young women and environment programs.
She was also involved in UN programs for women through UNIFEM in their Women and Politics training in Fiji, Vanuatu and East Timor, and co-ordinated a Pacific islands regional women in science and technology study. She was awarded an Order of Fiji in 1995 and an Order of Vanuatu in 2009.
Ruth Elizabeth Lechte was born in Melbourne on August 8, 1932, and attended Methodist Ladies College. She taught science at Korowa Girls School before training as a social worker at Westhill College in England.
In June 2002, Lechte and partner, Diane Goodwillie, moved to Coolum Beach, Queensland, where they teamed up with the Coolum District Coast Care Group to volunteer for projects to protect the Sunshine Coast and to educate the public about biodiversity and the environment. They were founding volunteers at the Coolum Community Native Nursery and volunteered for national parks service in the Epping scientific park, Lady Musgrave Island and Heron Island. They also supported the formation of young women’s programs, including the YWCA in Timor Leste.
Lechte, who was devoted to her family and the children and grandchildren of her friends, is survived by Diane Goodwillie, her partner of 34 years, her niece Robyn and her family Duncan, Nick, Tom and Alex Goode, nephew Rodney Lechte and her cousin Lisa Corben and family.