A quiet coup is underway in Fiji.
Women’s organisations are transforming communities as the Pacific nation emerges out of the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters.
A group of Indigenous Fijian women have appealed to the Australian government to support the second stage of a major project in Savusavu, a town on the island of Vanua Levu known as the “hidden paradise” of Fiji.
The Soqosoqo Vakamarama iTaukei Cakadrove is a coalition of Indigenous women’s groups from 134 villages and 15 districts in Cakadrove province.
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The organisation has collaborated with Architects Without Borders, Australian Volunteers International, the Australian government, as well as US and UN agencies to build a multi-purpose hall in Savusavu.
The Ra Marama Great Hall appears to be a traditional thatched “bure” hut but has a steel roof and is built to withstand cyclones, which are becoming more frequent and damaging in the Pacific due to climate change.
It has enabled the women’s organisation to deliver training in health, sustainable living, business skills and host visitors including diplomats and educators.
An ambitious second phase of the project, pitched to an Australian parliamentary delegation, would see a number of other buildings and infrastructure added to the site.
This would enable the organisation to deliver hospitality training, and run a small shop to provide business and skills opportunities for local women.
It would also offer geriatric care, counselling and onsite accommodation for women who would ordinarily have to sleep at the bus stop before returning to their villages, the furthest of which is 170km away.
Save the Children CEO Mat Tinkler said it was an example of “solutions lying in communities themselves”.
Also on Vanua Levu, another Australian government backed project – Markets for Change – has transformed the local market in the town of Labasa to make it safe, inclusive and non-discriminatory.
The market has an accommodation centre, set up to solve the problem of women and children coming in from remote villages having to sleep under their market tables at night.
“I’m happy to have accommodation here,” market stall operator Serafina Burekalou told the delegation, as she told of her years having to sleep rough.
The markets were allowed to stay open during COVID but put in place strict rules around masks, testing and sanitising.
International support is not all plain sailing.
Suva-based Preeya Ieli, the UN Women regional program manager, said remittances from Fijians working overseas were supporting their families and the local economy.
But she said there were growing concerns of a potential “drain” of workers taking up roles in Pacific labour schemes such as those being run by Australia and Canada.
However, the pandemic also saw a lot of Fijians who lost their jobs overseas during the pandemic return to their villages, bringing with them new skills and experience.
The gradually transforming Fiji is not without its social problems.
Women who are facing violence at home are also being supported by an Australian-backed program Medical Services Pacific.
The non-government organisation which operates in three facilities across Fiji delivers a one-stop shop for health care and social services for women, youth and children, including the national child services helplines.
Figures from the service showed a steep rise in reported sexual assault cases, from 58 in 2012 to 208 in 2021, with 145 reported in the first half of this year.
A key part of the service’s role is educating women and children about abuse and assault.
Project Talitha, also based in Labasa, empowers women who have faced challenges such as becoming single mums to change their lives for the better.
Kinisimere Sikasika said she had to give up her university teaching course and return to her village when she fell pregnant, but had her confidence restored after the training and mentoring provided by the project, which has Australian backing through UN Women.
“The best day of your life is the day you decide your life is your own,” she said, later telling AAP she was now studying human resource management.
The reporter’s travel is sponsored by Save the Children Australia