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COVID has major impact on Pacific women, experts warn

Published 14 Sep 2020
Bethany Latham

The lives of women and girls in the Pacific have been deeply impacted by COVID-19, and the consequences of the pandemic may continue long after the virus is gone, a panel of experts says
This stark warning was given at an AIIA Queensland webinar on July 16. The event was a collaboration with United Nations Women Australia and hosted by Dr Sarah Teitt, who is currently Deputy Director of the University of Queensland’s Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. The panel of speakers consisted of Tara Chetty, pictured above, Gender Adviser at Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development’s Support Unit; Sandra Bernklau, Representative for UN Women at the Fiji Multi-Country Office; and Janelle Weissman, the Executive Director of UN Women Australia.
The event began with Janelle Weissman providing some insight into the Pacfic Islands region and highlighting some of the biggest issues the area is facing. Ms Weissman also acknowledged Australia’s long ongoing partnership with UN Women, which is the youngest branch of the UN, and the only branch dedicated entirely to gender equality and empowerment. She commended Australia’s understanding of gender as a key factor in international development, saying that when we invest in women and girls, not only do they benefit immensely, but so do their families and communities. It is important to note that each nation in the Pacific is unique, with their own unique economies, cultural practices, and social issues. However, there are many common elements these states share, including a vulnerability to natural disasters. In recent years, these types of events have increased in frequency and severity, with cumulative impacts throughout the entire region. The Pacific also has some of the highest rates of violence against women, and some of lowest representation of women in leadership positions. Additionally, as many of these countries have economies are reliant on tourism or resources extraction, agricultural opportunities are somewhat limited, and the cost of doing business in the region can be very high due to shipping expenses. According to Ms Weissman, these pre-existing challenges, combined with the new threat of COVID-19, will continue to impact the region for many years to come, and we can expect women and girls to be disproportionately affected.
Sandra Bernklau discussed UN Women’s role in the Pacific, what the organisation has been working towards for the past few years and how they it has adapted to the many setbacks arising recently. UN Women works across 14 Pacific island states, employing many Pacific island nationals. Ms Bernklau cited some of the organisation’s main goals as: ending violence against women, advancing women’s economic empowerment, and supporting governments to comply with international standards on gender equality to empower women in leadership positions. While they have made some commendable progress in these areas, there is still a lot of work ahead, and 2020 has brought about some more unexpected challenges. This year, the Pacific has dealt with not only a global pandemic, but also Category 5 tropical cyclone Harold, which struck in April and had devastating effects for multiple countries. Many people were left displaced and in need of shelter, but it was incredibly difficult to ensure that recovery facilities could be properly sanitised, and social distancing measures were impossible to enforce. Ultimately, these people were at severe risk of catching COVID-19, with many nations not adequately equipped to provide the necessary health services.
Moreover, social distancing precautions have made it difficult to reach women in need through the programs which would usually be available. To make matters worse, research has shown that rates of domestic violence have risen globally during the period of lockdown. In an effort to combat this, UN Women has been collaborating closely with anti-violence services and crisis centres in order to allow them to continue to provide support. It has also identified the importance of marketplaces as a common source of food security, income, and social interaction; working with market vendors and management to create a safer environment for operators and patrons during the pandemic. One of the ways they have been able to do this is by utilising the strategic framework of the Pacific Humanitarian Protection Cluster, which is led by the UN Women’s Fiji Multi-Country Office where Ms Bernklau works.
The final speaker was Tara Chetty, who began by introducing Pacific Women; which is Australian Aid’s gender equality program for the region, working to bring the 2012 Pacific Leaders’ Gender Equality Declaration into action. This is a 10-year commitment across 14 countries, which collaborates with over 160 partners, including UN Women, to deliver more than 170 gender equality initiatives. Ms Chetty went on to highlight what COVID-19 truly means for women and girls living in the Pacific. Her team has found that jobs, income, food security, access to education and sexual health services have decreased, while debt, gender-based violence, internal migration and the burden of care have risen simultaneously. Moreover, she detailed how the pandemic has overlapped with existing inequalities, socio-economic challenges and severe natural disasters such as cyclones and drought, to create a web of intersecting crises, making it even more devastating and difficult to approach. One issue Ms Chetty’s team recognised and addressed was the way in which women’s livelihoods were being affected by the virus, and how the financial support systems originally put in place were not adequately protecting women. A vast majority of Pacific women’s income stems from the informal sector, but the governmental responses focussed largely on the formal sector, with schemes that allowed early access to providence or superannuation funds.
Each panellist called attention to the range of issues being faced by women in the Pacific, while highlighting the pivotal work being done to address these issues. However, with the added strain of COVID-19 further impacting these women, it is clear we must support these women and let their voices be heard.