Women are often left out of the conversations on disaster preparation and response. According to the United Nations (UN), women and girls experience greater “risks, burdens, and impacts” during and after disasters such as cyclones and extreme flooding. These risks include sexual violence and food insecurity, because of barriers to accessing health care, food and nutrition, water and sanitation, education, technology, and information in the aftermath of disasters. Cyclone Winston, which hit Fiji in 2016, limited access to food and water, forcing women and girls to travel further to get daily supplies of food and water, exposing them to greater risks to their security along the way. Women’s needs have not been adequately included in disaster preparation, and thus, women are burdened with extra labor to account for their own needs and those of their families after disasters strike. The disproportionate burden of disaster preparation and response that falls on women threatens the realization of women’s rights, but communities have also used it as a catalyst for organizing around women’s empowerment.
Fiji has been a party to and legally bound by the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) since 1995. Under Article 2, Fiji is responsible for all discrimination against women both by the government and by private individuals. Article 11 protects the right to have the same employment opportunities as men and prohibits any discrimination in employment. Articles 7 and 14 require that women be included equally in policy planning, development, and implementation at all levels, noting the particular vulnerability of rural women and the need to support their inclusion. In 2018, the committee to CEDAW issued General Recommendation Number 37 on gender-related dimensions of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change.
General recommendations are treated as authoritative interpretations of a state’s obligations under CEDAW. The Recommendation encourages states to address gender issues in the context of disasters and climate change through three broad principles: (1) substantive equality and non-discrimination; (2) participation and empowerment; and (3) accountability and access to justice. These principles can be measured by a variety of factors: discrimination in post-disaster access to food, water, and shelter, security from gender-based violence in temporary shelters and evacuation centers, representation in response planning, or even the normalization of skills like swimming and climbing as activities for girls. In its 2018 Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women recommended that Fiji take steps to include women in disaster preparedness planning and strategy development. While General Recommendation Number 37 was passed after the 2018 UPR, many recommendations incorporated General Recommendation Number 37’s second principle of participation and empowerment.
After natural disasters, Fijian women’s unpaid work increases while their autonomy decreases, as they tend to be the people finding resources and caring for families. Further, women have been excluded from policy development for disaster preparedness, so their needs have not been adequately addressed or met. Over two years after the devastation of Cyclone Winston, mud crab fishers, which are predominantly women, are still feeling the effects of the disaster in the size and number of mud crabs they are able to catch. Other women stopped fishing for crabs altogether, citing reasons such as needing to rebuild and repair homes or fallen trees blocking their access to the mangroves where the crabs live. Women were unable to access paid employment because the bulk of the rebuilding and recovery work fell to them. The implicit discrimination that forces women to take on a heavier burden in post-disaster rebuilding is a violation of Fiji’s obligations to eliminate discrimination against women, especially rural women, because it discriminates against women entering paid employment, guaranteed under Articles 2 and 11.
While the government’s seeming inaction and indifference towards who is bearing greater risks and burdens in preparing for and rebuilding after disasters is a violation of its obligations, private community organizations are working through an empowerment approach to provide women with the skills and support they need to effectively join the conversation on disasters. One such organization, FemLINKPACIFIC, is a feminist organization that focuses on having a coordinated community approach to warning systems through radio and SMS communications. Through trainings, publications, and conferences, FemLINKPACIFIC focuses on using media, like radio, to voice women’s issues and needs in the planning and development process. FemLINKPACIFIC has successfully empowered women to participate in disaster-readiness planning. While they have been around longer than General Recommendation Number 37, they provide an example of how empowerment and participation can be used to advocate for women to be included in discussions and development on disaster preparedness and response. Using models like this, the Fijian government and other island nations can uphold their CEDAW obligations to ensure women are participating in decision-making under Articles 7 and 14 and actively work to mitigate, and eventually prevent, the disproportionate effects of disaster preparedness and response on women.