By Menka Goundan and Erica Lee
Just as Fiji’s economy started to pick up from last year’s hardships, the nation was yet again plunged into another round of lockdowns. On 17 April 2021, the Fijian Government announced a resurgence of COVID-19 positive cases in the country.
Although Fiji had previously been able to contain the first COVID-19 outbreak last year, the 2nd Wave has been more rampant with severe ramifications to our nation and the economy. Now eight weeks on, parts of the nation remain under containment (restricted movement within zones), businesses are trying to reopen under stringent new COVID-19 protocols and Fiji’s citizens are under revised curfew hours.
Unlike our experience in 2020 when everything seemed so unfamiliar, this year we know what to do (or what we should be doing), how to react and most importantly where resources are most badly needed.
The Fiji Women’s Fund works with 38 grantee partners across Fiji. Since April, we have been in constant communication with our grantee partners and other stakeholders who make our work as feminist resource mobilisers and connectors possible.
In a two-part blog series, we will be sharing some of the stories, experiences and learnings of our grantee partners. From our analysis, women, girls and gender-conforming people are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in the following ways:
Gender Gap: The widening gap in gender disparity
Whilst the lockdown and isolation efforts are meant to save lives; many women have become prey to abusers within their homes. Domestic violence poses adversarial effects to women’s mental and physical health. Our grantee partner Medical Services Pacific has been working continually to maintain the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation’s 1325 national child helpline: providing counseling, medical and legal support to survivors of domestic violence and providing crucial counseling and medical support to the Fiji Police Force and the Ministry of Health and Medical Services for sexual assault cases. Our partners are also reporting instances of discrimination and abuse based on their sexual orientation and psycho-social disabilities. Our grantee partners have continued to share the struggles of women in the communities. They have noted the demise of income which has decreased women’s ability to access basic needs and services. Unemployment has become more rampant amongst women since women are more likely to be employed in the services sector which has been severely impacted by COVID-19. Similarly, Fiji’s 2018 Employment Survey conducted by the Fiji Bureau of Statistics shows that women are more likely to be wage earners than salary earners. Lockdowns affect women more than men in terms of income. Since wage earners earn according to the actual hours of work rather than a fixed income as salary earners.
Geographic Gap: Rural and remote communities left behind in response efforts
Despite the belief that rural communities in Fiji have not been greatly affected, we know from our grantees that rural women are also feeling the impact of COVID-19 restrictions and are often cash poor. Whilst these communities may not have food security issues, they fall outside of the containment zones, but heavily rely on them for income and to access essential services. Our grantee partner Rise Beyond the Reef (RBTR) is promoting circular economies, supporting rural farming communities in Ba by purchasing their produce at farm-gate prices. This means rural women now have cash to buy items like sugar, rice, flour and are also reducing their possible exposure to the virus by not leaving their communities. Ba rural farmers are also locked out of major sales markets in Nadi and Lautoka due to the containment zones. We supported RBTR’s food security programme through a grant from the Australian Humanitarian Partnership. Over the past eight weeks, RBTR has been able to support families in lockdown from Nadi right through to Suva and Nausori. RBTR is working closely with the District Officers to ensure that fresh produce is delivered to families in need especially those under quarantine.
Rural communities are also reporting technological/telecommunication challenges. Most mobile phones owned in rural households are held by a man and often this is a simple analog phone. Rural women say some of the COVID-19 introduced technologies do not take into consideration their plight. In some villages, the whole community is using one smartphone to gain access to supermarkets but this defeats the purpose of contact tracing protocols.
Structural Gap: Women more likely to be excluded from social protection schemes
Whilst there have been two forms of Fijian Government social protection schemes such as the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) COVID-19 Benefits and cash assistance ($90 first per household then $50 per individual over 18) available to Fijians, these schemes do not equitably benefit women. Firstly, fewer women compared to men are members of the FNPF. Secondly, more women are employed in the informal sector thus excluding them from having pension savings to draw from. Again, access to some of these assistance programmes requires a mobile phone.
Economic Gap: Increasing in food insecurity
Nearing the third month of restricted movement and many wage earners are still unable to return to work, food insecurity has dramatically increased across Fiji. All of our grantee partners are reporting increasing requests for food rations. Among items being requested are hygiene products, baby formula and diapers. Requests are not just coming from the unemployed, it’s also coming from individuals who are employed but are not receiving any income because they have already exhausted leave pay.
With Suva City largely dormant due to the curfews, our grantee partner the Psychiatric Survivors Association (PSA) has had to provide daily meals to 50 of its members living on the streets as there is no foot traffic around to offer them food. We are working closely with PSA to strengthen this initiative as restrictions on movement continue.
Communities that had just a month ago reported being well are also now reaching out as food sources are diminishing or their access to purchasing essentials is limited by containment zones. At the end of May, our grantee partner the Naitasiri Women in Dairy Group reached out for support given its changed status. The community is now under quarantine and further movement restrictions given the detection of COVID-19 positive patients.
Services Gap: Personal protective equipment/supplies are inaccessible
With masks being mandatory for all citizens to wear when in public, we are also receiving reports of these PPEs being inaccessible – they are costly, scarce and not available in some communities. We have received many requests from our grantee partners for the provision of PPEs especially for use in maternal health facilities, for homeless members living on the streets, from small businesses, isolation facilities, public health volunteers and supplementary resources for service provision in eliminating violence against women. These requests have been through BIRTH Fiji, Psychiatric Survivors Association, Medical Services Pacific and Rise Beyond the Reef.
However, the shortages have created opportunities for many women. Our grantee partner the Women Entrepreneurs and Business Council is reporting that their members are finding alternative livelihoods by diversifying into making masks, reusable diapers, and sanitary pads.
Given this constantly evolving situation, the gap between people of various circumstances continues to widen. The continuing rise in food insecurity, unemployment and COVID-19 positive cases are sure to put more pressure on the already stretched government and aid coffers. The record number of cases daily does not only diminish hopes of resuming the economy but also shows the stark reality of long-term effects of the pandemic as Fijians dig deeper each day to access basic necessities.
Stay tuned for our next blog where we will discuss how the Fund is responding to the needs of the women and feminist movement and why it is important to continue to fund women’s funds especially in times of crisis when women face exacerbated gender injustices.