Malia Tuitupou, a volunteer working at one of the “Women Friendly Spaces” established and supported by the United Nation Population Fund (UNFPA) Pacific in Tonga, still vividly remembers the aftermath of the unprecedented natural disasters, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption that occurred in the late afternoon of 15 January 2022 along with the subsequent tsunami, which combinedly changed the lives of 84,000 people - the overwhelming majority of Tonga’s 100,000 plus population - throughout the island groups of Tongatapu, 'Eua, and Ha'apai.
“Women and girls were trying to call the helpline for Gender-Based Violence (GBV) support. But, the phones were down,” Malia recalls. “Women, even in our day-to-day normal lives, require protection from violence. Even more so, in emergency situations like the volcano eruption and tsunami. Women and girls need a place to go, always.”
Disasters increase risks of gender-based violence
Before the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption, the Pacific region has since long been suffering from natural disasters - such as the devastating Tropical Cyclones (TC), the 2015 TC Pam in Vanuatu, 2016 TC Winston that destroyed Fiji, then TC Harold that affected Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga in 2020, closely followed by TC Yasa and Ana in 2020/2021. Such repeated natural disasters have a terrible impact on affected communities, further eroding resilience and coping capacity. It is normally women and girls who are disproportionately affected, particularly with their access to resources and essential services disrupted, including for protection and treatment for gender-based violence that tends to increase during emergencies. The COVID-19 pandemic has further fuelled a ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women and girls. According to the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC), domestic-violence related calls to their nationwide helpline increased by 300 percent when COVID-19 lockdowns began.
Drought conditions too force women and children to walk long distances to water wells, often resulting in a rise in the incidence reports of rape and abuse, as were the cases in Micronesia and Kiribati. The lack of sufficient water increases the challenges of women and girls in continuing to meet their sexual and reproductive health (SRH), menstrual health and hygiene related needs. Menstrual health and hygiene supplies become harder to acquire as the response efforts’ focus shifts more onto hardware water sanitation supplies within households and communities.
These crises have robbed women, across the globe and in the Pacific as well, of their agency at all levels, drastically increasing the risk of unintended pregnancy, as women often lose access to contraceptives while sexual violence increases as well.
Gendered impact of climate change
As the world commemorates the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence against women and girls, an international campaign that takes place each year from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day, the Pacific region also enters into its tropical cyclone season. The relationships between GBV, natural disasters and especially the climate crises can no longer be ignored. Climate change induced crises amplify women and girls’ discrimination, isolation and vulnerability, and reinforce gender inequality by eroding and exposing weaknesses of social protective systems and support networks. These interlinkages are important to take into consideration while pursuing climate justice.
At the recent 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), the ‘gendered impact of climate change’ dominated the discussions. Across the world, there is a unanimous agreement that women and girls are at the frontlines of climate change crises, as they face greater obstacles in adapting to climate change and bear increased unpaid care and domestic work when disasters hit. They are vulnerable to GBV triggered by crises. Activists across the world have sent a strong message - women should play a greater role in devising and implementing climate change solutions in their countries.
In the Pacific, against the background where GBV is among the highest in the world - twice the global average, with 68 per cent of Pacific women having reported experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime - the governments are committed to realizing gender equality including through eliminating GBV, as demonstrated in the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent and the Pacific Leaders Declaration. With a view to achieving sustainable development, regional and national disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, social protection, other plans and strategies must prioritise putting significant amounts of resources for preventing and responding to GBV, while developing resilient protection systems that safeguard the health, lives and wellbeing of women and girls.
UNFPA’s multi-sectoral support to addressing GBV
UNFPA has been supporting the Pacific countries to build and sustain national and local systems’ resilience against climate change. This includes working with national Ministries of Health to strengthen the capacity of Reproductive, Maternal, New-born, Children and Adolescents Health (RMNCAH) health workforce to be responsive to impacts of climate change crises including managing GBV, with support of the European Union-funded Spotlight Initiative as well as of the Government of Australia.
UNFPA Pacific was among the first partners to support the Tongan Government response in the recent Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai tsunami response to provide life-saving GBV, SRH and psychosocial support services. In the aftermath of the TC Yasa, UNFPA Pacific in collaboration with the Fijian Ministry of Health and Medical Services (MHMS) and the Fijian Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation (MWCPA), established six Women Friendly Spaces (WFSs) in Seaqaqa, Lekutu, Wainunu, Kubulua, Nakorovatu, and Kia Island, for affected women and girls to take safe refuge. In addition, UNFPA Pacific helped deploy retired Fijian midwives to provide first-line life-saving GBV, SRH and psychosocial services at those WFSs. “I am proud of my contribution as a retired Midwife as I was able to support others, especially women who felt helpless, and those who suffered physical and emotional abuse. UNFPA-supported Women Friendly Spaces was an excellent initiative, because they may be the only safe place for women to go and take refuge at, share their experiences and access services,” says Sister Moapa Nainima, one of the deployed retired-midwives.
Further, UNFPA Pacific works with national government Ministries of Health to implement the Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) to ensure continuity of lifesaving GBV and SRH services during crises, and to strengthen national capacities for Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) needed during such emergencies. UNFPA with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is partnering with St. Vincent's Hospital and Fiji National University (FNU) to deliver an MPHSS certified course (Veilomani), targeting health and social workers. Currently, 234 registered participants from 14 Pacific countries, across counselling, nursing, medical and mental health professionals are enrolled.
The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign is supported by the whole United Nations System through the Secretary General’s UNiTE by 2030 to End Violence against Women initiative. This year 2022, the UN marks the 16 Days under the theme ‘UNiTE! Activism to end violence against women and girls. “I am hoping that the 16 Days of Activism campaign will galvanise more solidarity and support towards movements and partnerships against gender-based violence. UNFPA calls on the Pacific island countries to allocate more national and local governments’ resources towards preventing and responding to GBV. GBV should be seen as a national socio-economic emergency, just like climate change is regarded as an emergency to all 14 Pacific Island Countries and Territories that UNFPA Pacific serves”, says Iori Kato, UNFPA Director for the Pacific and Representative in Fiji.
UNFPA Pacific, through its new 7th Multi-Country Programme for 14 PICTs for 2023-2027, remains committed to working closely with national governments, communities and civil society actors, to ensure the rights, health and wellbeing of women and girls, before, during and after emergencies.