By Neehal Khatri
The Pacific Rainbow Advocacy Network (PRAN) is helping its members deal with the socio-economic fallout of COVID-19 through initiatives that focus on alternative livelihoods and access to healthcare services.
PRAN is a community-led network comprising members with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. The Lautoka-based network has about 80 active members in the Western Division, including, homeless people, single mothers, people living with disabilities and former and current sex workers.
COVID-19 and TC Harold experiences
According to PRAN Coordinator Bonita Qio, dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a new and unsettling experience for many of their members.
When the first case was detected in March this year and Lautoka went into lockdown, PRAN members had a hard time sharing accurate and timely information within the network, especially with those who didn’t own mobile phones or couldn’t afford to top up their phone credit to receive updates on social media.
Bonita shared: ‘When many of the restrictions were imposed suddenly by the government, my community members struggled to make sense of the information and instructions. We did not know why we had to practice social distancing, we did not know why we needed to wash our hands or even how to properly wear a mask. All this type of information is very important because it helps them better prepare themselves.’
The curfew (initially from 8 pm to 5 am) and restrictions on social gatherings and movement in and out of the lockdown area also posed another challenge for many PRAN members.
According to Bonita, some of their members struggled to earn enough money from street work during this time. She said there were times when members had called her to look after their children after being arrested by the police for breaking the social gathering restriction while they were out working on the street. Bonita added that the struggle to put food on the table had caused tension in many households and, in some cases, led to domestic violence.
With schools closed, members who were mothers found it hard to juggle work while meeting their children’s needs as they stayed at home. Single mothers with infants were particularly affected as they struggled to buy supplementary milk. Fortunately, the network was able to receive immediate relief from DIVA for Equality and Youth Champs 4 Mental Health that enabled them to provide the much-needed milk.
PRAN’s homeless members also urgently needed to find shelter with the strict lockdown, curfew, and social gatherings restrictions in place. Through the help of police officers, the network was able to find a vacant government quarters for the homeless members, which they are still using. PRAN was also able to get food supplies with the support of the Fiji Council of Social Services, DIVA for Equality and Youth Champs 4 Mental Health.
According to Bonita, their LGBTQI members have also been facing additional discrimination, including verbal abuse, since the first case of COVID-19 was detected. She said they had been called names on the street and even blamed for bringing the virus into the country.
While PRAN’s leaders were still trying to help their members deal with the initial impacts of COVID-19, Category 4 Tropical Cyclone Harold hit in early April – causing flooding and exacerbating the food and shelter challenges that people were facing.
Several PRAN members volunteered with the Fiji Red Cross Society to help with relief efforts, as they had done in the past during natural disasters. In return, the network received food and dignity packs for their members who needed immediate help.
‘In situations like this where food source and food security were really affected, we had to look out for each other. I think that was the spirit that kept us alive in the west. Just looking out for each other and helping each other. Whatever little things we had, we were just sharing it with each other,’ Bonita shared.
As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to unfold, PRAN is working on initiatives to help its vulnerable members receive relief supplies, pivot to alternative forms of livelihood and access healthcare services in a safe space. This work is supported by the Australian Humanitarian Partnership through the Fiji Women’s Fund.
After completing a needs assessment, PRAN will provide tailored relief packages for members who need help, including those who are homeless, single mothers or living with disabilities. The relief packages will contain food and non-food household items, and household equipment for members whose homes were damaged during the cyclone.
The network is also helping its members plant vegetables such as eggplant, cabbage and okra in their backyards to build food security. They have identified land plots in Ba, Lautoka and Nadi to plant income-generating crops such as yaqona and cassava. This will help provide a sustainable livelihood alternative for the members. PRAN also plans to establish nurseries to ensure a consistent supply of seedlings and to keep the project going in the long term.
‘We have been receiving advice and support from Sashi Kiran of the Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development, who has been running training sessions for our members on planting methods especially working with organics. She has also taught us many new skills like food preparation, for example, how to make cassava flour or using leftover cassava to make roti,’ Bonita said.
Apart from creating alternative livelihoods, the network is working with Medical Services Pacific to help its members access sexual, reproductive and general health services in a safe space. For some members, this is the first time they have received a general health check-up. PRAN is also helping the members who are experiencing domestic violence by referring them to Medical Services Pacific.
Through these initiatives, PRAN continues to help its members adjust to the new socio-economic reality brought on by the pandemic.
The Pacific Rainbow Advocacy Network (PRAN) is a community-led organisation established in 2008 through the ‘Sekoula Project’ by Empower Pacific. The Lautoka-based network has more than 80 members with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, homeless people, single mothers, people living with disabilities and former and current sex workers. PRAN advocates on the issues and needs of its members, including human rights and access to essential services.