SPECIAL REPORT: By Sheldon Chanel in Suva
Much of archipelagic Fiji was forced indoors by lockdowns and a nationwide curfew in March last year when the country recorded its first case of covid-19.
The quick and decisive action by legislators was successful in helping contain the spread of a highly contagious virus and received international praise.
But in other ways, the policy has scarred the country.
Civil society groups say that social isolation and confinement is proving far more dangerous for many of the country’s women than the deadly virus stalking the outdoors.
Activists and non-government organisations report a “concerning increase” in violence against women and girls since the pandemic began in a country where rates of domestic violence were already among the highest in the world.
“It [the pandemic] has definitely increased [violence against women] compared with 2019 and last year – the frequency and intensity has increased,” says Shamima Ali, the coordinator of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC).
“The beatings are getting really bad too – there is punching and kicking, which was always there but also the use of weapons such as knives and cases of forced prostitution of women and children.”
Among highest violence rates
The Pacific region, home to just 0.1 percent of the world’s population, has some of the highest rates of violence against women and girls globally.
On average, 30 percent of women worldwide experienced some form of physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner before the pandemic, according to the United Nations.
The figure was twice as high in Fiji, where some 64 percent of women said they had been the target of some form of abuse. The numbers were similarly high in other Pacific nations, including Kiribati (68 percent), Solomon Islands (64 percent) and Vanuatu (60 percent).
Although there have been no studies yet to determine the full scale of Fiji’s post-covid-19 domestic violence, the feedback from women’s groups, coupled with trends seen overseas, indicate a grim situation, fuelled by the rise in unemployment and poverty that have accompanied the pandemic.
Experts describe the trend as a ”crisis within a crisis” and warn that unless urgent action is taken, the social fabric of the region is at risk.
The FWCC’s toll-free national helpline recorded a 300 percent increase in domestic violence-related calls one month after curfews and lockdowns were announced, including 527 in April, 2020, compared with 87 calls in February and 187 in March.
While the lockdown has been eased, the curfew – from 11pm until 4am each night – remains in force.
The UN reports that all types of violence against women and girls intensified worldwide during the pandemic, labelling it the “Shadow Pandemic”.
Ali says the root cause for the violence is a pervasive culture of patriarchy and entrenched attitudes across Fijian society in which women are viewed as “second-class citizens”.
“And then you add on the issues of religion, which is very patriarchal also. We have a deep belief and reverence for religion and it is often used to keep women oppressed,” Ali said.
These pre-existing domestic violence triggers have been exacerbated by the pressures inflicted by the pandemic’s socioeconomic impacts.
With a population of 900,000, Fiji is the Pacific’s second-largest economy and a popular tourist destination.
The decline in international travel and the subsequent collapse of global tourism led to more than 115,000 job losses in the country, as well as an overall economic contraction of 21 percent in 2020.
The effect has been greatest in the western part of the country, which relies most heavily on tourism, which has international hotel chains such as the Marriott Fiji Resort, Sheraton Fiji and Radisson Blu Resort.
Stress of job losses
Sashi Kiran, founder and director for the Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development (FRIEND) in Fiji, says men were finding it difficult to deal with the stress of job losses, which was leading to family violence and other social issues.
The combination of unemployment-related stress and social confinement, compounded by women’s lack of access to the formal justice system, has created the perfect conditions for violence to thrive, she says.
Nalini Singh, executive director of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement (FWRM), says the rise in violence was not unexpected. Previous crises have tended to disproportionately affect women and girls, she notes.
“It’s a great concern for us because violence against women and girls is already a shadow pandemic in Fiji; covid-19 only makes the situation worse,” Singh says.
Rajni Chand, the board chair of FemLINK Pacific, a feminist regional media organisation working with rural women, said social isolation was “increasing and intensifying” violence inside homes.
“The woman is socially isolated, and in a ‘lockdown’ at home and the perpetrator is also in the same ‘lockdown’,” she says.
The violence women and girls experience at home is also detrimental to their economic and political participation, in a region where women are historically underrepresented in both these sectors.
‘Shocking levels’ of violence
A 2015 paper on Domestic Violence and its Prevalence in Small Island Developing States found that the cost of domestic violence to the Fijian economy was 6.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
More recently, a report by the National Democratic Institute found that the “shocking levels of violence” in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands hindered women’s participation in politics.
National and regional governments, as well as civil society organisations, have launched various initiatives to tackle the issue.
In 2018, the European Union, Australian Government, United Nations, the Pacific Community and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat launched a 22.7 million euro (US$27.5 million) Pacific Partnership to End Violence against Women.
The key outcome of the five-year project is to promote gender-equitable norms through education to prevent violence against women and girls, as well as empower civil society at the national and regional level.
Fiji’s Ministry of Women is also holding national consultations to develop a “whole-of-government and whole-of-community” National Action Plan to prevent violence against women and girls.
But the post-covid-19 surge has added to the pre-existing challenges, with calls for these initiatives to incorporate a more holistic approach in the wake of the pandemic and its gender-specific impacts.
“At the moment, there’s a lot of emphasis on reviving the economy rather than continuing with the work that was put in place before the pandemic,” says Shamima Ali of the FWCC.
“Fiji is very lucky to have a robust feminist movement and we’re raising our voices to ensure women are included in economic planning but other countries [in the region] don’t have that.”
Ali adds that Fiji has a number of pieces of progressive domestic violence legislation, including the Domestic Violence Restraining Order and No Drop Policy, which means that authorities will investigate even if a woman withdraws the case or there is a reconciliation.
“These legislations do work in many cases; but they also don’t work due to the attitudes of the implementers,” she says.
“There’s a lot of talk saying the right things but how it actually plays out in the system – the courts, police stations and medical services – is very different and does not often protect women.”
FWRM’s Nalini Singh says a long-term solution is needed to address the root cause of gender-based violence – patriarchal attitudes – and encourage men to change their attitudes and behaviour.
“There is a need to allocate specific resources during the pandemic to deal with domestic violence,” Singh says.
“The battle is still ongoing.”
Sheldon Chanel is a Fiji-based journalist who contributes to Asia Pacific Report. This article was originally published by the Al Jazeera English here. It has been republished with the permission of the author and AJ English.