There are lessons for disaster resilience and recovery to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. Submissions emphasised that the pandemic is causing additional negative impacts on women’s human rights in the Pacific islands. Submissions also described how the threats and risks to women and girls will be exacerbated by climate change.
In April 2021, the Australian Government released its second National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2021-2031. The National Action Plan states that the Australian Government’s work to support ‘resilience, crisis response, and security, law and justice sector efforts to meet the needs and rights of all women and girls’ include actions that aim to:
amplify the work of women’s rights organisations, networks and coalitions, which are already investing in crisis response and sustainable disaster management, and encourage their leadership in humanitarian response and disaster management;
adopt a gender-responsive approach to resilience, relief and recovery in our humanitarian action, and stabilisation, development and disaster management;
ensure stabilisation and recovery approaches meet the needs of women and girls for long-term sustainable livelihoods, including access to health, education, and economic opportunities.
Impact of the pandemic
World Vision stated that the pandemic is ‘acting as a risk multiplier for women and girls in the Pacific region.’ The Australian Red Cross similarly stated that as a result of the pandemic, women in the Pacific will ‘be impacted significantly by the economic downturn given their over-representation in sectors and jobs such as retail, hospitality and tourism.’
YWCA Australia explained that the pandemic has resulted in women taking on ‘increased domestic and care responsibilities and many have lost employment, plunging their families and themselves into hardship.’
The International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) suggested that ‘the losses in revenue and income streams’ in the Pacific due to the pandemic’s global shutdowns, ‘risk entrenching poverty and gender inequality in ways that, if left unchecked, could reverberate for years, and possibly decades, to come.’
To assist Pacific island countries in their response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) announced in May 2020 its Partnerships for Recovery strategy, which aims to ‘reprioritise … future assistance’ to the region.
DFAT in July 2020 stated that in response to the pandemic, it has supported the implementation of protective health measures throughout the region:
Australia has been working with Pacific countries to help them prepare for and respond to the pandemic. This includes deploying health experts and providing personal protective equipment (PPE), medical supplies and support for laboratories, public information campaigns. We worked with our partners to pivot our development program to meet the highest priorities, including delivery of financial support.
DFAT also outlined in July 2020 that it was responding to ‘the gender impacts’ of the pandemic by reprioritising its areas of focus:
Australia is pivoting its aid programming … to ensure we meet the immediate needs of women and girls. This includes ensuring that women and girls who have experienced violence can continue to access local services, safe shelter and support.
Oaktree encouraged that after the pandemic, Australia should focus on ‘strengthening the human capital of young women in the Pacific’, including initiatives that ‘expand education and training opportunities for young women, which is critical to the Pacific’s economic recovery post the COVID-19 crisis.’
DFAT stated that women were increasingly represented in the hospitality and tourism sectors, and stated in June 2021 that this would be an important area ‘as we emerge out of COVID’:
… pre-COVID, [hospitality and tourism] was a major area of growth for Pacific women to take up jobs in. In north Queensland, a lot of people from Kiribati, Samoa, and Tonga are actually front of house in semi-skilled types of jobs in Australia. And these types of opportunities are going to be important.
In June 2021, DFAT also detailed that its new Pacific Women Lead program ‘will be flexible enough to respond to the emerging needs of women and girls, including through the post COVID-19 pandemic period as well as climate change.’
Climate change and disasters
Submissions raised concerns about the detrimental impacts of climate change, and what this meant for women and girls. The Burnet Institute emphasised that as a result of heightened areas of vulnerability:
… it is critical that any efforts geared towards improving the attainment of human rights for women and girls in the Pacific also recognise and address the real and growing challenges related to climate change.
The Australian National University (ANU) Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) noted that ‘climate forced migration and displacement has already started to occur and is likely to increase in the near future.’ Sustainable Population Australia emphasised that ‘consideration must be given to the fact that many people in the Pacific are likely to be displaced in the coming decades due to climate change.’
The ANU DPA also outlined that ‘existing, structural and deeply entrenched gender inequalities across the Pacific exacerbate [climate change] impacts for women and girls.’ World Vision similarly elaborated that:
… women and their rights are particularly vulnerable to climate change for a range of reasons, including unequal access to resources and power, restricted rights and ability to move freely and without fear, and limited ability to influence the ways their communities are managed.
‘Conflict, climate-related disasters, climate-induced displacement and labour migration’ was emphasised by the Australian Red Cross to be ‘increasing drivers of other protection issues impacting women and girls, particularly human trafficking and modern slavery.’
Walk Free similarly explained that ‘as the impacts of climate change displace people from their homes, female migrants face heightened risk of violence, trafficking, and forced and early marriage.’ The ANU International Law Clinic reiterated this cause and effect theme:
The uncertainty caused by potential territorial inundation may lead to increased domestic violence. Such an increase has been proven to occur when nations are put under economic stresses or environmental disaster.
World Vision also highlighted that women’s needs are often overlooked in the aftermath of disasters:
This is particularly true for women or girls displaced or living in temporary accommodation, where there is a far greater risk of rape and physical violence. Women also often face increased insecurity, with women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, such as health checks, access to sanitary items, and contraception, often being overlooked.
The ANU DPA stated that ‘there is an increasing need to build climate ready infrastructure, as the cost of dealing with more frequent and intense natural disasters escalates and tourism revenue falls due to environmental degradation and the recent pandemic.’
To lessen the gendered impacts of these disasters on women and girls, the Australian Red Cross recommended that:
Australia work with Pacific island states, Pacific regional organisations and local civil society actors to implement commitments to increase women's representation and leadership and to elevate women's participation and voice in disaster management and planning platforms.
The Red Cross also stressed the importance of enhanced cooperation with local actors to enhance their disaster preparedness rather than have the region dependent on external actors:
Investing in working with local organisations—supporting them to be able to step up and step into the space that has previously been taken by international organisations—is a huge opportunity for the Australian government to continue working in that space.
ActionAid Australia highlighted three means through which ‘Australia could continue to build on its support for women’s rights across the Pacific region’:
… firstly, strengthening Australia’s response to climate change, including through an integrated approach to climate change and gender equality; secondly, increasing support for local women’s rights organisations, including through development, humanitarian and climate funding streams; and, finally, prioritising infrastructure investment to reflect the needs of women in their communities.
To protect ‘women’s human rights in disasters, including climate change’, the United Nations Country Teams in the Pacific recommended:
Investment in vulnerability mapping for women and girls to ensure targeted response and prevention.
Increased technical assistance to integrate gender responsive climate action (including sexual and reproductive health and rights) into national priorities in adaptation to climate change.
Strengthened National Disaster Management Offices to support mainstreaming of gender and protection of women’s human rights across all sectors of humanitarian response, including the engagement of protection cluster members in all disaster assessment teams and across all phases of preparedness, risk, response and resilience.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many planned initiatives under the Pacific Step-up, and required swift responses to the impacts of the pandemic. The Committee notes that the Australian Government responded to these challenges through its COVID-19 support to the region, and that the pandemic did not limit its engagement and consultation with Pacific leaders.
Many lessons have been learned both in Australia and across the Pacific islands from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Committee considers that the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic should translate to a sharpened focus on disaster management.
The Committee recognises that disasters such as pandemics, climate change and natural disasters exacerbate existing difficulties faced by women and girls. The particular chain of impacts that a disaster can have on women and girls needs to be fully understood, and the Committee heard that the direct involvement of women and girls in disaster management planning is critical to ensuring that their needs are not overlooked.
The Committee heard that Australian Government programs should work with organisations in the Pacific islands to build on the existing work of local organisations to manage and recover from disasters, whether they are pandemic or climate change-related. This is because local organisations are best placed to ensure that factors most relevant to specific regions are accounted for in disaster management plans. In a similar manner, professional groups, such as Engineers without Borders, faith groups, and other NGOs could be supported in their work for Pacific Islanders.
The Committee recommends that all support provided by the Australian Government to any organisation or bodies undertaking disaster management planning and response work include women representatives.
To ensure that an understanding of women’s needs in local areas are taken into account, the Committee recommends that the Australian Government works with Pacific governments to build the capacity of local organisations in the Pacific to respond to natural disasters and ensure Pacific women are included in the delivery and evaluations of programs.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government works with Pacific governments to provide support for projects mapping the vulnerabilities experienced by women and girls in the region during disasters.