by Erica Lee
Being told to stay indoors, keep your distance from people, and that you cannot visit your family and friends can be stressful for a nation that prides itself on communal living and sharing values. Precautions imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) such as social distancing and movement restrictions took both a psychological and physical toll on many citizens, especially on women and children.
During the height of the lockdown restriction, Medical Services Pacific (MSP) was one of the many organisations on the front-lines providing critical support to citizens coping with COVID-19.
MSP manages the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation’s toll-free National Child Helpline, 1325. The helpline is operated by four Counsellors and aims to prevent and respond to cases of child abuse and exploitation. In accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the helpline helps to ensure that all Fijian children have the right to be heard and protected.
Country Director, Ashna Shaleen said the helpline had been inundated with calls from parents and children expressing COVID-19 anxiety and frustration at being kept at home over the past three months.
“It can be difficult for working parents who now have to cope with trying to balance working from home, being caregivers, and now also taking on the role of a teacher. It can be a very stressful situation especially for households with more than one child. Many parents have sought advice on how best to discipline misbehaving children and how to also deal with the increasing internet usage by their children, especially on social media.”
“During the lockdown, we also found that children could not understand why they weren’t allowed to play with other children in their community or why they couldn’t visit their cousins or grandparents, especially over the Easter holidays. Children need to be kept busy with activities, they need their parent’s attention and love and most importantly parents should not resort to corporal punishment as a way to discipline their children,” she added.
Shaleen also warned that with children now at home until the Fijian Government announces the reopening of schools, parents needed to be more vigilant and monitor the whereabouts of their children and be cautious about those they chose to watch/mind their children. She said that children were at risk of being sexually abused even by close family members. She added that the numbers of juveniles that were caught breaching curfew or lockdown restrictions were also an indication that they were not being properly supervised by their parents.
According to the Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation Hon. Mereseini Vuniwaqa, between March and April, the helpline recorded 126 calls with 67% of the callers being children. 25% of the calls were specifically on child abuse and 23% were related to COVID-19. Of the child abuse cases, 75% were referred to the Child Services Unit, 23% to Fiji Police Force, and 2% to other service providers on the ground. The youngest caller was a nine-year-old.
The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions also released statistics for this same period reporting that there were 20 reports of rape, eight for attempted rape, one case of abduction with intent to have carnal knowledge, indecent assault, and four cases of sexual assault. 11 of these cases were under the age of 18. In five of these cases, the perpetrator was a person related to the child and in one case a 35-year-old man was charged with raping and sexually assaulting three of nieces ages eight and nine.
How is MSP responding to the COVID-19 crisis?
Apart from receiving calls related to COVID-19 anxiety and child abuse MSP also received distress calls on its counselling helpline from families in March who at the time were within the lockdown zone – Lautoka. They had used the toll-free line to ask for help especially with food rations. Though not within their mandate of work, MSP reached out to friends, family, and other NGOs seeking immediate help for these families especially those who had lost their jobs in the tourism industry.
With many citizens not being able to comprehend the severity of the virus and how hygiene and social distancing were the main mechanisms by which to curb its spread, MSP had been creating constant awareness and visiting communities to distribute hygiene kits which contained soaps and face masks. MSP also collaborated with the Ministry of Youth and Sport office in Labasa to hand over 150 face masks and hand made soap to the Ministry of Health and Medical Services.
To address the increase in gender-based violence in Fiji, MSP joined the Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Working Group led by the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation (MWCPA), the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, and UN Women and works in partnership with front-line service providers, who are signatories to the Fiji National Service Delivery Protocol for Responding to cases of GBV.
Relief efforts for cyclone Harold
On 2nd April, tropical cyclone Harold wrought havoc in Fiji and exacerbated some of the issues already being felt on the ground from COVID-19.
MSP was immediately on the ground despite the lockdown movement restrictions and curfew, assisting communities by distributing over 300 dignity and WASH kits received from the Governments of Australia and Canada. Dignity kits contain hygiene and sanitary items tailored towards the local needs of women and girls of reproductive age. The kits contain soaps, sanitary material, toothbrushes, and toothpaste and water purifying tablets. Fiji Women’s Fund support also allowed MSP to replenish some of their depleted supplies to ensure their continued support to communities.
The kits help people improve cleanliness and ensure that women and girls maintain their dignity during humanitarian crises. Preserving dignity is essential to maintaining, health, self-esteem, and confidence, which is important to cope with stressful and potentially overwhelming situations. Supporting women’s self-esteem and confidence also assists them in providing care and protection to their children. Research also shows that providing dignity kits will enable women and girls to use their limited resources to purchase other important items needed in an emergency, such as food, and facilitate their mobility to access services.
Through the funding of the Australian Government’s Fiji Program Support Facility (the Facility), MSP is working with the Commissioner Centrals Office and the Fiji National Disaster Management Office to provide psychosocial support to the 100+ families who were living in government shelters (schools) or makeshift homes (tents) after losing their homes to cyclone damage
“We deployed a team of Counsellors to Rewa,Tailevu, and Naitasiri to provide psychosocial support over five-weeks to help individuals and communities to heal emotional wounds, rebuild and quickly return to normal life,” she said.
In the Northern Division, MSP is supporting the Ministry of Health with door to door awareness on the prevention of outbreaks of diseases like leptospirosis, typhoid, dengue fever, and diarrhea (LTDD). In early May, the Ministry had reported 800 cases of LTDD. MSP has been working with communities on cleanup campaigns (clearing mosquitoes breeding places, cutting grass and removing any stagnant water), and proper hygiene practices which are also conducive to COVID-19 precautionary measures. LTDD presents a challenge for health authorities as patients who contract it present the same symptoms as COVID-19.
The Fiji Women’s Fund through Australian Government funding supports MSP’s core operations costs and staffing which has allowed it to continue its critical medical services, humanitarian assistance, and support for women and children at risk of sexual abuse or violence.
To access MSP services or find out how you can support their work, please visit their website: http://msp.org.fj/
Photo Credit: Medical Services Pacific