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Women’s leadership in the Pacific: humanitarian response

Women’s leadership in the Pacific: humanitarian response

By Michelle Higelin and Sharon Bhagwan Rolls

How can we ensure humanitarian action reaches everyone?

Pacific women are hardworking, creative and resilient. They make valuable contributions to their countries and economies in times of peace and stability, and there is a growing recognition of their vital role as first responders in humanitarian emergencies. However, women and girls face significant challenges. Gender inequality remains a development challenge for many countries in the world – including those in the Pacific. Up to 60% of women and girls have experienced violence at the hands of partners or family members. The percentage of women in Pacific parliaments currently sits at around 5%, men outnumber women in paid employment (outside the agricultural sector) by approximately two to one, and men typically earn 20 – 50% more than women because they work in jobs attracting higher salaries.

These realities impact on women, girls and their communities before, during and after disasters, increasing vulnerability and preventing full participation in response and recovery efforts. Women and girls have often been excluded from meaningful leadership roles in disaster response and their specific needs overlooked during needs assessments. They have also suffered increased rates of sexual abuse, rape and partner violence.

Experience has shown that women’s involvement in humanitarian response leads to better outcomes for entire communities. Women have an important role to play in preparedness, response, recovery and stabilisation efforts – whether in relation to a disaster or conflict – and a powerful role to play in promoting peace and recovery. This capacity needs to be harnessed effectively and women’s leadership and empowerment supported at every level. As the Pacific region continues to experience devastating humanitarian crises, women’s participation, their protection from violence, exploitation and abuse, and the promotion of rights-based alternatives to humanitarian action remains essential.

Tropical Cyclone Pam and Tropical Cyclone Winston – learning from experience

The strength and resilience of Pacific women following the recent Cyclones in Fiji (2016) and Vanuatu (2015), and their capacity to contribute to their community’s recovery was clear. Women worked through their local networks to reach out to communities, to document needs and mobilise support for the most vulnerable. In the immediate aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston, FemLINKPACIFIC, a small Suva-based NGO, released updates through community radio and social media to ensure that women’s priorities were visible to response coordinators, and that information about relief efforts reached all people, including women. Recommendations from communities, which advocated for a stronger role for women in response planning and management, were also shared with government departments, development partners and cluster leads. At the same time, a national television show and SMS campaign featured rural women leaders in an effort to increase attention to the priorities of women and girls, from ensuring women were safe to providing nutritional supplements for lactating and pregnant women.

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Pacific Women’s Humanitarian Consultation Banner. Photo credit: Stacey Sawchuk for ActionAid Australia.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Pam, ActionAid established Women’s Information Centres in Tanna, Erromango and Eton that laid the foundation for a women’s forum that now comprises more than 3,700 members from rural and remote communities. For the first time in the region, information centres were established at the heart of emergency operations to provide women with direct access to information about distributions and to support them to raise their voices and document their needs in the emergency response. When the “blue tents” closed, women formed “Women I Tok Tok” (Women Talk Together) to continue speaking up for their rights and needs in disaster response and management.

“Women I Tok Tok” is a forum where women are developing their own community-based protection mechanisms to address their increasing vulnerability to violence and abuse in times of disaster. Women are supporting each other as they learn about their rights, strengthen their capacity as leaders and work together to bring about change. They are identifying protection risks and vulnerabilities, and designing their own solutions. This is a significant change in a context where women are almost always excluded from decision-making, which is closely guarded as a space for men.

Yet, despite this decisive action, persistent barriers remain that impede many women from participating in and leading decision-making processes. In agriculture, education, food security, economic security and health many gaps still remain, and the international community is far from seeing a comprehensive and inclusive response to disaster. Ensuring women can inform and influence decisions which affect their lives, including through equal participation in local and national governance, is vital. The efforts of community-based women’s movements must be recognised and supported to bring about long-term prevention and social transformation so that all women and girls can claim their right to peace and security in the immediate, medium and long-term recovery.

Elevating women’s voices at the Pacific Regional Consultation

Learning from our own response efforts, at the World Humanitarian Summit Pacific Regional Consultation, we were determined to ensure that Pacific women’s voices were heard strongly as the international community works toward a fit-for-purpose humanitarian ecosystem for the future. Together with the Australian Government, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and UN Women, ActionAid convened a Pacific ‘Women’s Humanitarian Consultation’ to ensure that the valuable lessons to be learned from women’s experiences in times of disaster were heard strongly in our region.

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Delegates at the Pacific Women’s Humanitarian Consultation. Photo credit: Stacey Sawchuk for ActionAid Australia.

From these discussions, a few issues stood out strongly for the Pacific region. First, participants called for a locally-led response. Time and again local actors were overlooked in the rush by the humanitarian system to provide assistance. Women mapped out how, in the past 12 disasters in the Pacific, local women’s groups were consistently overlooked. Second, there was a strong call for the humanitarian community to seek a more gendered and context-specific understanding of vulnerability. Both our understanding of unequal gender relations and our response must be tailored to context. Third, participants highlighted the need to prioritise protection in all responses – with particular attention to women’s safety, dignity, security and sexual and reproductive health and rights in emergencies. Finally, participants called for enhanced opportunities to increase women’s participation and leadership in disaster management and planning, to look beyond vulnerability and recognise the important role that diverse women’s contributions can make to improve the response.

We will seek to ensure these recommendations are implemented in future humanitarian responses in the Pacific and globally. We call on the international community to endorse the urgent need for gender-responsive policies and programming on climate change and disaster risk reduction and response which protect and promote women’s human rights and ensure full and equal participation.

Michelle Higelin is the Deputy Executive Director of ActionAid Australia, leading the organisation’s international programs and policy. She coordinates the global federation’s work on women’s rights and emergencies and co-chairs ActionAid’s International Humanitarian Platform and the ACFID Humanitarian Reference Group. Michelle has worked in the global women’s rights movement for over 20 years and was previously the Deputy Executive Director of the World YWCA.

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls is the Executive Director of FemLINKPACIFIC, a community media organisation that advocates for women as decision makers in the long-term transformation of Fiji. Sharon is the Board President of the Global Fund for Women, as well as a member of the UN Women Global Civil Society Advisory Group and a board member of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict. She also serves as a member of the Programme Management Group of the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS).

Featured image shows a Fijian woman sharing her experience after Tropical Cyclone Winston. Photo credit: Josaia Boseiwaqa for FemLINKPACIFIC.

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