Empowering Pacific rural women

47-year old Emily Qilarisa lives in Sepa, a remote village of around 240 residents in Choiseul Province in the northern most part of Solomon Islands. For the people in her community, the adverse impacts of climate change is something they’re having to contend with as coastal erosion, severe storm surges and inundation resulting from tropical cyclones has destroyed food crops and threatened food security.

To address the needs of Pacific rural women like Emily, The Pacific Community (SPC) with the financial contribution of USAID has helped over 300 women set up home gardens in Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu and taught them new farming skills to grow a greater diversity of crops for enhanced food security.

SPC has also helped the women learn new food preparation skills, and assisted with the setting up of poultry farms, piggeries and honey bee farms to generate income and strengthen their communities’ resilience. Prior to the assistance, Emily and other women in her community would walk long distances to bush gardens to grow root crops and vegetables in order to feed their families and bring in some much-needed income for household needs.

Today, they have thriving home gardens and nurseries where they grow a greater diversity of food crops and sell the surplus produce at the village market day on Saturdays. Compared to their urban counterparts, Pacific rural women face a myriad of challenges; from accessing basic services and infrastructure such as water and sanitation, electricity, health and education; to being more at risk to domestic violence and unwanted pregnancies; as well as being more exposed to the adverse impacts of climate change like cyclone and droughts. Laisani Adivuki is a single mother of two sons aged 23 and 11 who lives in Ra Province on Fiji’s main island Viti Levu.

She has leased 120 acres of prime land from her clan (or landing owning unit) for growing food crops and setting up her ilapia pond. She has set up a small roadside market, where she and other women from her community sell fresh produce to passing motorists.

When Laisani embarked on tilapia farming, she was made fun of by people in her village and surrounding community. Often men would ask what she knew about tilapia farming, insisting that this was no job for a woman. Undeterred, Laisani persevered reinvesting the earnings from her farming and aquaculture activities back into her business.

Being able to make her own decisions has been very empowering, she said. Additionally, it has been empowering for other women in her community when they sell produce and earn their own money at the roadside stall that Laisani has set up.

Aquaculture and inland fishery is relatively new in the Pacific with very little information on the division of labour and women’s role in aquaculture. The assumption, as usual, is that fish farming – is performed by men, with little help from women.

A gender analysis of the aquaculture sector in Fiji conducted by SPC in 2017 found otherwise with rural women playing a major role in aquaculture farming across tilapia farms in the country, however they are not often included in training opportunities.

The analysis found that aquaculture activities are having an impact on the empowerment of women like Laisani with respect to more decision-making opportunities (outside the household) and are leading to their greater recognition in formal structures within communities. In addition, group-managed farms – either a women’s committee collective or a cluster – and large family-run farms appear to give women a sense of power, notably as a result of associations of women and the opportunity for a collective voice.

Prior to the study, SPC had undertaken gender mainstreaming training and field work for extension officers in the Fijian Ministry of Fisheries with the view that women’s roles and inputs are included in community based projects.

With the empowerment of rural women and girls a specific focus of the sixtysecond session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York in mid March, SPC is strengthening its commitment to work alongside Pacific Island governments to improve the lives of Pacific rural women.

The different divisions of SPC are working together across a number of critical development areas including fisheries and agriculture, water and sanitation, and energy to name a few to improve the livelihoods and living conditions of Pacific rural women. In addition, SPC is also addressing the social dimension of empowerment by raising awareness about inequality, building capacity to progress gender equality, and promoting women’s human rights to empower Pacific rural women.