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Women-led responses to COVID-19: Report from the Pacific Islands

Updated: Apr 21

Women’s organisations around the world report COVID-19 and the urgent action they’re taking to protect their communities

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls is a second-generation Fiji Island feminist working on the intersection of gender, media, communications, and peace by supporting the development and production of appropriate and accessible media. She is the Technical Advisor to the Shifting the Power Coalition: an alliance of women’s rights and disability organisations across the Pacific region working together to strengthen diverse women’s voices, agency and decision making in disaster preparedness, response and recover.

Sharon reports from Suva, Fiji.


“One thing to take into account is that – we are currently at a phase of global transitional change because of COVID-19. There are probably going to be some major changes - as we’re currently experiencing. We might return to normal, and it may be a new normal. The question is – how can we ensure that women are part of the decision making of policies that depicts the new and ensuring inclusivity in the changes? These are just my thoughts. May we pay close attentions to all discussions and meetings,” says Adivasu Levu, the Executive Director of Transcend Oceania, which is the Pacific regional secretariat of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), a founding network of the Shifting the Power Coalition (StP Coalition).

Adivasu provides important guidance to the Secretariat and Programmes team of the StP Coalition.


She reminds us that the COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer of challenges to the persistent inequalities that women in the Pacific Island region continue to struggle against – where women in communities and villages are still waiting for government gender equality commitments to transform their lives with inclusive WASH and agricultural programmes.

In Chabai, Bougainville, Sister Lorraine Garasu who heads the Nazareth Centre for Rehabilitation, relates: “At the Nazareth Centre for the residents we are holding meetings twice a day to update residents and staff on the state of emergency (SOE) and the currents on COVID-19 and to send out reminders to the families on their hygiene and sanitation including restriction on movements and social distancing. Most of the resources that inform us on the C19 come by email, WhatsApp, SW Radio, NBC PNG, and NCB Bougainville give live broadcasts and messages including the news. We were also gathering the information through the newspaper but since total lockdown, no planes are flying out into the provinces.”


Both Adivasu and Sr. Lorraine remind us that women’s leadership is not always found in the capitals but in the communities, often, in the Pacific, on another island:

“The Nazareth Centre for Rehabilitation is located at Chabai, Selau/Suir District in the North/West Tip of North Bougainville. The location of the Centre is also remote in terms of communication, we are not located directly to the nearest Digicel tower. Hence the reception is not stable, not good enough to do internet and email, therefore we have to travel to the area where reception is clear to access communication,” says Sr Lorraine.

Adivasu manages a regional peace building organisation, but she is located on Fiji’s second island of Vanua Levu. Here, only when planes are flying do newspapers arrive into the main town - when the first flight arrives. Across the island, it might be the following day. Right now, local flights have been stopped to Vanua Levu, and there are now two confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Adivasu shares concerns about the fragility of peace in her community with Sister Lorraine, who said, of South Bougainville:

In the light of peace building in South Bougainville where there has been ongoing gun violence since December 2019, there have been communities displaced due to gun violence by 3 small factions that have not been a part of the peace process.


From August 2019 to September 2019, the National Centre for Rehabilitation was working directly with two factions to try to resolve their issues, but a killing triggered the 3 factions to counteract, and since the referendum polling there has been violence in that area.


NCFR, with our partner, Conciliation Resources, has done a peace building analysis to guide and direct us to do what we could do help the people to end this violence. I have had time to speak to the leaders of two factions. I have not been able to speak to the leader of the third faction, as I have mobility problems but my team from NCFR who have been working with him, and his people have spoken to him.


The situation has now created the case of over 1000 people in a care centre, and others are still displaced people with relatives in other villages. My number of people in the care centre is not really correct, I am still trying to get the correction information. There is a problem of shortage of people and living conditions are not the best. The NCFR Team is not able to do any response due to the SOE. I am trying to follow closely what Government is doing so we can negotiate how we can best respond, we have local partners who we are working with to attend to this situation.”

We are organising – but it's not just about COVID

Women continue to mobilise and organise in our villages, communities, and settlements. We are adapting our local innovation and knowledge of our communities, our countries.


So while Pacific countries went into lockdown, in Vanuatu key members of Women Wetem Weta (Women’s Weather Watch or WWW) mobilised working closely with the Vanuatu Ministry of Health (MoH) to develop an SMS in the local language Bislama.


As the global COVID-19 pandemic heated up, women in Vanuatu took the response into their own hands to develop the first national public health message about the virus. The message, in simple non-technical language, was sent to more than 77,148 people on five islands across the Digicel mobile network – directly reaching more than one quarter of the Vanuatu population. SMS translation: ‘Avoid close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections. Frequently wash hands with soap and water. Cover nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.’

COVID19 has added to the challenges of the current Pacific Island region cyclone season. But with Woman Wetem Weta, the ActionAid Vanuatu team was ready to also respond to TC Harold, another category five cyclone that made landfall on April 4 after wreaking havoc in Solomon Islands. Tropical Cyclone Harold was the first Category 5 severe tropical cyclone to occur in the South Pacific basin since Cyclone Gita in 2018 and was also the second-strongest tropical cyclone to ever affect Vanuatu, behind Cyclone Pam in 2015.


Rural women leaders in consultation with StPC member FemLINKpacific

From Vanuatu it made its way to Fiji and then on to Tonga where Ofa Fa’anunu, Director of Meteorology, tracked severe Tropical Cyclone Harold (category 5). So too did Shifting the Power Coalition Steering Committee member Vanessa Heleta, the Executive Director of the Talitha Project:


"As we face the reality and fear of COVID-19, TC Harold is increasing the burden of women first responders to ensure community safety and resilience. But we persist to cultivate resilience to ensure Protection measures are in place.”

Heleta added that at such times, solidarity and support through women-led networks and partnerships provide the necessary support to work together in new and innovative ways that are needed. According to Heleta, Cyclone Gita showed the insurmountable resilience of the girls and young women of Tonga. And it is vital that regional responses, including to the COVID-19 crisis invest in them.

Talitha Project is one of the 13 member organisations of the Pacific regional Shifting the Power Coalition (StP Coalition), the only regional alliance focused on strengthening the collective power, influence and leadership of diverse Pacific women in responding to disasters and climate change.


The StP Coalition was formed in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam (2015) in Vanuatu and Cyclone Winston (2016) in Fiji. Members of the Coalition have taken the 2019-2020 Pacific cyclone season update seriously sharing their experiences and working together to support women at local, national and regional levels to mobilise and enhance preparedness, response and recovery. Strategies are being updated to also take into account the COVID-19 crisis at national and local level.

Redesign the table to make localisation work

Gender inequalities have already affected access to healthcare, resources, and information, all of which play a role in prevention, early intervention, and treatment. Whether it is access to livelihood opportunities and financial security, or access to decision-making power in households and government, we need to ensure Pacific women are heard by their communities and influence the COVID-19 response.

Access to decision making and leadership means we are still trying to ensure that we don’t just have one seat at the table but the table is redesigned to enable our diversities to be represented.

And while there are commitments to the localisation agenda, in our own countries, we are faced with the reality of further marginalisation from the mainstream humanitarian space because we are accountable to our local networks where the information and experience on the strategies needed to respond to COVID are in the lived realities of people like Adivasu, Sister Lorraine, and Vanessa.


Sharon Bhagwan Rolls and the ActionAid Vanuatu team

Instead, there is an assumption that women are connected to the accelerated frequency of online information that is not reaching us in our local languages. But actually, we are working hard to sift through and ensure we have the correct information and that it is making sense and protecting our communities.

Our Coalition focuses on strengthening women’s capacity to engage in policy and decision making, driving evidence-based and women-led innovations from the region, as well as engaging in national and regional advocacy. StP Coalition members from Fiji, Papua New Guinea (including Bougainville), Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Australia, and their local and Pacific-wide networks, including the Pacific Disability Forum and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) Pacific network, are working together to support women at local, national, and regional levels to mobilise our collective leadership. ActionAid, as a women’s rights focused humanitarian organisation supports Coalition members to engage in the humanitarian system.

Ultimately, as Pacific women, we have grown up living the issues that are being discussed in spaces where the dividends of humanitarian response are being negotiated. We have seen in local communities when rural women have to catch the earliest bus at 6am in order to be in town to run between government officials who remain siloed in their approach to development and humanitarian action.

And as a feminist network we know the COVID-19 pandemic has to change the way humanitarian action is organised. As Pacific Island women we want greater engagement in humanitarian action, building on our indigenous knowledge, and existing good practices and capacities in the region with the goal to gradually reduce dependence on international actors for humanitarian assistance and protection.

Members of the Shifting the Power Coalition

As Michelle Higelin, the Executive Director of ActionAid Australia puts it: “The Shifting the Power Coalition in the Pacific is an initiative to challenge the status quo within the humanitarian system and put power back in the hands of those leading emergency response in their own communities – particularly women. With support from DFAT’s Pacific Women Initiative, the Shifting the Power Coalition has set an ambitious goal to ensure diverse Pacific women’s leadership in humanitarian action is recognised and facilitated. The STPC is a group of women’s organisations across six countries in the region working together to claim their rights and take their seats at the table. Women’s leadership, voices and needs are the cornerstone of an effective, fair and just humanitarian response, one whereby crisis has the potential to shift power and resources in favour of those most impacted: women.”

I would add, COVID19 presents us with the opportunity to redesign the table including progressing the peace-development and humanitarian nexus approach.


The Feminist Humanitarian Network is working to facilitate shared learning and support amongst its members on the frontlines of the response to COVID-19 in countries around the world.To join or support the FHN, please email contact@feministhumanitariannetwork.org

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