Vanua Balavu remote village
A remote village on Vanua Balavu island, Fiji. © Will Seal
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Could the Covid-19 crisis advance gender equality? Perspectives from Fiji

Author: William Hamilton
Published by: ALIGN

Look at a map of our planet, and it’s all too easy to miss the Pacific Island Countries (PICs). After all, most world maps are centred on the Greenwich meridian. This puts countries like Fiji, quite literally, on the edge of our vision of the world. However, Fiji, like the rest of the world, faces the many impacts of Covid-19, including its implications for gender equality. Fiji also shows us, however, that the pandemic response has the potential to change gender norms, offering lessons learned for other countries.

Map showing the Pacific Island Countries ©Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.
The Pacific Island Countries
©Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.

If you glance at the number of Covid-19 infections worldwide, most PICs seem to have escaped the worst of the pandemic. Fiji, for example, appears to have eliminated all domestic presence of Covid-19 and, at the time of publication, 10 PICs have yet to record a single case. This is testament to early and decisive action by leaders throughout the Pacific.

Even so, the global effects of Covid-19 are putting a strain on societies throughout the Pacific. And we know full well that the effects of this strain vary by gender. We must not, therefore, assume that the successful early health response means that the PICs are immune to the wider socio-economic impacts. It is important to identify and understand the potential and profound impact on the nature of harmful gender norms and their potential for change - both good and bad.

The recent ALIGN briefing note - Action on Covid-19 and gender: A policy review from Fiji - reviews gender-related policy actions resulting from the impact of (and responses to) the pandemic. While the briefing focuses on the impact of Covid-19 on gender equality in Fiji, much of the impact is common to the wider Pacific region and to many other Small-Island Developing States worldwide. Fiji can be a good introduction to gender-related actions stemming from Covid-19, particularly for countries where tourism contributes a great deal to the national economy.

Gender inequalities that are rooted in harmful norms are already widespread throughout the region. Despite its reputation for calm, the Pacific has some of the world’s highest prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV). One particularly alarming statistic is that nearly two thirds of women in Fiji are believed to have suffered physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner. In addition, strong gender norms relate to the types of occupation that people undertake, often restricting women to unpaid home and care work. This is why, in part, women hold only a third of jobs within the formal economy across Melanesia.

A highly active network of women’s support groups in Fiji was already responding to these existing inequalities. The network spans the Government of Fiji, local civic groups, a relatively large UN Women multi-country office and the Australian-backed Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development programme, which supports almost 160 partner organisations across 14 PICs. This network is mounting a well-coordinated response to the gendered impacts of Covid-19.

The growing focus on the gendered impacts of Covid-19 is an opportunity to challenge pre-existing gender norms. The global crisis has created a fluid situation that is already changing societal norms across the board. This re-boot has magnified the inequalities that were already there, drawing public attention to the losses caused by harmful gender norms. In Fiji, prominent leaders, such as the Prime Minister, the Minister for Women, and women’s groups are highlighting the risks arising from Covid-19 to women’s rights in national media.

A fruit and veg seller in Fiji. ©Giorgia Doglioni/Unsplash
A fruit and veg seller in Fiji.
©Giorgia Doglioni/Unsplash

The Government is also allocating record levels of funding for the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation, causing a shift in some government service provision. One example is the Legal Aid Commission of Fiji, which has responded to Covid-19 by waiving its usual requirements for those facing domestic violence, such as having to take a means test or even having to fill out any pre-requisite information forms. In addition, a new organisation to provide concessional financial support for micro, small and medium enterprises includes the Women in Business association as accredited assessors for loan applications.

These changes show early signs that the government recognises the barriers to formal assistance that women often face, and is acting to remove such barriers. These actions may change public perceptions of gender norms for the better, but it is important that prominent leadership is maintained to secure long-term change.

There is also, of course, a strong danger that Covid-19 could lead to a backsliding of recent global progress towards gender equality. As the briefing note shows, Fijian women and girls will carry the worst of the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, both in the short- and long-term. These include much higher rates of GBV, larger barriers to formal business support and even greater burdens of unpaid care work – both in the short-term to help children’s home education and potentially in the long-term should children fall sick after missing routine vaccinations. Since the publication of the briefing note in May, it has already been reported that Covid-19 has increased employees’ experiences of domestic and sexual violence in Fiji.

It will be a long time before we will know whether this crisis has shifted gender norms in a positive way, or whether recent progress has been overwhelmed by its long-term socio-economic impact. However, the response and future outlook from Fiji offers some encouraging signs. Like many other small island states that are so often ignored, Fiji not only presents significant challenges on harmful gender norms but also offers important lessons on how change happens, and how a crisis can enable a patriarchal society to improved gender equality.

 
 

William HamiltonAbout the author 

William Hamilton is an ODI Fellow who has worked in a number of roles for the Fijian government since October 2018. His work has covered government priorities from micro, small and medium enterprise development to competition and consumer protection policy formulation. Prior to his ODI Fellowship, William attained a Masters in Economic Research from the University of Cambridge.