The counselling helpline provides immediate support to the clients, in many cases women who are struggling to meet their family needs or suffering from violence and relationship issues at home. (Photo: UNDP)

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is far more than just a health crisis: it has shaken societies and economies to their core. Each individual is dealing with their own crises.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, Mili (not real name) struggled to feed her four young children and send her two older children to school. Her husband was employed full-time in construction, providing an income to the family. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Fiji’s shores and government enacted lockdowns to mitigate the spread of the virus, her life started falling apart.

Her husband’s working hours were reduced to three hours per day.  All schools were closed. Mili, the four children and her husband were all confined to a one-room house in a crowded settlement community, causing considerable friction in the family. They struggled to put food on the table with half of their usual income adding huge amounts of pressure and stress.

Unable to pay their rent, her husband moved to his friend’s house in town to continue working while she moved back to her village in the countryside with the four children to live with her elderly parents - where she knew they would be supported, but not as welcomed guests.  With her husband no longer supporting the family, Mili is terrified their marriage and life together as a family will fall apart.

This is one of the many calls received through the counselling helpline set up by Empower Pacific, a civil society organization (CSO) in Fiji, to assist clients by listening and responding to each crisis story.

This is not an isolated story. Empower Pacific extended its counselling services online soon after the Fijian Government declared a lockdown on the Sugar City of Lautoka on 20 March (this was lifted on 7 April). They were only available in person previously. Even though Empower Pacific’s headquarters is based in Lautoka, the lockdown spurred the shift to online services.  Counsellors are able to take calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and provide confidential counselling services. Since then 1,969 calls were received (as of 11 August), the majority of whom were women.

Empower Pacific staff members in Lautoka discussed with the United Nations Resident Coordinator Sanaka Samrasinha strategies to address gender-based violence in the Pacific. (Photo: UNDP)

Empower Pacific Chief Executive Officer, Patrick Morgam said, “We have received calls about loss or reduction of jobs and income, becoming unable to afford basic food, housing rent and life-saving medication, breakdown of relationships between couples, children and parents, including violence and neglect. The issues people talked to us are often complex, driving them even to suicide attempts in the most serious of cases.”

“We often provide immediate support to the clients who call us, in many cases women who are struggling to meet their family needs or suffering from violence and relationship issues at home."

“While attending individual psychosocial needs, we also provide awareness raising sessions engaging with both women and men to address the issues, which is, I believe, leading to transformation of unequal power relationships between men and women in a peaceful manner and contributing to prevention of violence and gender equality,” said Mr. Morgam.

The UN policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on women published in April this year says women already do three times as much unpaid care work as men, and with COVID-19, unpaid care work has increased, with children out-of-school, heightened care needs of older persons and overwhelmed health services.  The brief also showed a concerning global trend whereby violence against women has surged in all forms during the pandemic.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) as the technical lead for the socio-economic response, immediately supported Empower Pacific’s initiative through Fiji Access to Justice Project, funded by the European Union.

The project provided mobile smartphones and tablet computers with broadband internet connectivity, enabling the counsellors to provide counselling remotely for their safety and efficiency during the lockdown. Counselling service, through phone calls, video calls and text messages became more accessible by people living in remote communities, whether outer islands or interior of Fiji, and persons with disabilities.

National awareness on the helpline has been raised through a multimedia advertising campaign, coordinated by the project and Empower Pacific. A short video and graphic announcements were put on nationwide TV, in newspapers, websites, and social media platforms. 

“I want to encourage people to seek help. Our counseling is one of their options which is always available for professional support, Mr. Morgam added.

Empower Pacific is one of four CSOs that receive grants from the Fiji Access to Justice project in 2019 for the provision of justice support services to gender-based violence survivors. The success of these grants in 2019 led to a second round of support in 2020, to accelerate efforts and leave no one behind.

National awareness on the helpline has been raised through a multimedia advertising campaign (Design: Lumen Films)

The Fiji Access to Justice Project supports access to justice, in particular for impoverished and vulnerable groups. It does so by empowering people to access their legal rights and services, strengthening key justice institutions to deliver improved services, and strengthening the capacity of CSOs to deliver justice accompaniment services, with a special focus on supporting persons with disabilities and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

As the efforts to progress the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the COVID-19 pandemic response are intertwined, the project through integrated approach supports Fiji’s commitment to advancing SDGs with focus on Goal 5 - to achieve gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, and Goal 16 - to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

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