TC Winston One Year On: Fijian community organisations leading response
When disaster strikes, lives are thrown into chaos, and existing inequalities are often exacerbated. In this chaos, sometimes people who are less visible in the drama of the response, such as the elderly or people with disabilities, and less visible needs, such as psychological first aid, can be overlooked.
UN Women knows this all too well, as it works across the Pacific to bring about gender equality. Both in normal times and in times of emergency, UN Women supports governments and local organisations in areas including preventing and responding to violence against women, and increasing the economic empowerment of women across the Pacific.
Often the best partners to deliver assistance to communities in a disaster as the local organisations who have a history of work on the ground, and the staff and relationships to move services and goods out quickly to the affected population. These organisations also often have the best understanding of and access to affected people who may be less visible. When Cyclone Winston hit Fiji in February 2016 and left its devastating impact across great swathes of the country, UN Women quickly raised and distributed money for key local organisations in Fiji including Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, Empower Pacific, the Fiji Disabled People’s Federation and Medical Services Fiji to enable these local organisations to respond to the needs of the affected communities.
“People can rebuild destroyed homes and give food, but it is addressing the emotional trauma that’s most important”, said Bimla Madhavan, a counsellor at Empower Pacific. “The funding we received from UN Women enabled us to mobilise our counselling team to provide psychological first aid in communities reeling from the disaster, such as on Koro Island” added Empower’s Mereoni Rakula. “There were men facing significant trauma from the sense of helplessness they felt during the cyclone, for themselves, their families, their homes and livelihoods. There were women who felt the loss of privacy that came from having every living and man-made structure, from houses to bushes, stripped away by the cyclone. There was simply nowhere for them to go for privacy, or to hide from violence.”
For Fiji Disabled People’s Federation (FDPF), the funding channeled through UN Women enabled them to reach out to people with disabilities in affected communities, and to get them many items vital for their safety, mobility and their dignity, from wheelchairs and assistance aids, to adult diapers and clothing items.
Peni Rawaidranu who works with FDPF, spoke of how he was involved in data collection on people with disabilities to assess their needs and tailor the assistance provided to each individual’s situation. “It was such a moving experience to connect with people, to see how much they felt respected and valued” he said, “and, as someone in a wheelchair myself, they could see that people with disabilities are not just people in need – we are capable of mobilising to reach out and help others”.
Peni Rawaidranu describing his experience conducting a disability assessment in cyclone-affected villages to UN Women’s Naeemah Khan
Using the funds from UN Women, FDPF procured assistance items, according to the specific needs they had assessed. The work coordinated by staff with disabilities, and also young women with disabilities were employed to prepare the individually tailored dignity packs ready for distribution by teams of volunteers, to more than 550 people with disabilities across some of the worst hit areas and islands. Their work was empowering and inspiring for the people they assisted, but also a real shift in perspective for some of their families and others in their communities.
The Rakiraki Women’s Crisis Centre worked from with affected communities right from the start. “Widows, single mothers and the elderly were struggling to access assistance”, said team member Selina Momoyalewa. Ra was one of the worst hit areas, and through the support of UN Women the centre was able to provide counselling support and basic relief items to their affected clients. The women of the centre were not only dealing with the clients but also dealing with rebuilding their own lives, as they were affected by the cyclone.
L-R: Mexi Adilagi of RWCC, Naeemah Khan of UN Women, and Selina Momoyalewa of RWCC
“These are great local organisations we partner with, their staff rose from their own suffering and stepped up, using their skills and resources to support fellow Fijians affected by the cyclone” said Aleta Miller, UN Women Representative. “We remain steadfast in our support to local service providers in both emergency and non-emergency times – we know that they know what’s best for their communities.”