Early preparations and data-gathering mark responses to COVID-19 in Fiji and Tonga

As COVID-19 started making headlines back in January, crisis centres for survivors of violence against women in the Pacific started preparing for the possible implications, should it reach their shores. Having experienced multiple natural disasters and emergencies over the years, they knew that rates and severity of domestic violence escalate during crises, often coupled with disruptions to support services and a deprioritisation of women and girls’ safety by state, police and other essential services.

In Fiji and Tonga, two crisis centres that the UN Women’s Ending Violence Against Women and Girls program works with, surged into preparedness and response mode. They knew early on that their counselling and support services would become more challenging, and more critical than ever, as the global pandemic loomed. 

As early as January 2020, the team at the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC), led by Coordinator Shamima Ali, started making contingency plans. “The first thing we did was cancel all travel plans. We continued following the news closely, strategising and putting plans in place. Being informed was key.”

Like Ali, about 500 miles away in the nation of Tonga, ‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Director of the Women and Children’s Crisis Centre (WCCC), also cancelled travel and started gathering information. 

“When WHO declared the global pandemic on 11 March, we held an urgent meeting to go through our prevention and response plan. We had sessions on hygienic prevention measures inside the office and how to practice hygienic steps at home,” says Guttenbeil-Likiliki. 

Both centres began intensively promoting their helpline numbers on radio, television and social media, with Tonga piloting online counselling for the first time in their country.

The centre in Fiji also started providing phone counselling from home early on. “While it was important for us to start working from home to avoid putting both clients and staff at risk, what people missed most was the face-to-face interaction, especially the counsellors. Being with the survivor face-to-face is part-and-parcel of gender-based violence response,” says Ali. 

With Fiji now COVID-19-free and fewer restrictions in place since mid-May, the centre has started rostering counsellors for face-to-face counselling, while distancing and wearing protective gear. 

From reassuring staff of their job security, to equipping them to work from home, to teaching them about WHO-recommended safety and hygiene methods, to making information available to their families and communities – these crisis centres took steps to ensure their own physical safety and mental well-being so as to best support survivors and continue their work.

As a result of concerted advocacy, both the centres in Fiji and Tonga were deemed essential services – an important recognition from governments that survivors of gender-based violence also need critical services during lockdowns – and that meant they would continue to offer these services during the lockdown. While the 15-day lockdown period  has since ended in Tonga, with the country recording zero cases, the centre’s safety and response practices have not relaxed.

“We have created two teams who work from the office on alternate days. Should a member from one team come into contact with anyone who has COVID-19, that whole team will go into isolation, and we have another team to continue the work from the office,” says Guttenbeil-Likiliki. 

In Tonga, the women’s crisis centre sought to track the impact of the lockdown on survivors, recording a 54 per cent increase in the number of cases coming in during that period. Tracking continues post-lockdown as the true magnitude of the violence is only just emerging. 

“Women are saying the lockdown was a living hell for them,” said Guttenbeil-Likiliki. “We are getting more cases of violence now, which were experienced during the lockdown period. We had Tongan women from the diaspora reach out as well. Right now, we are dealing with a sexual abuse case that pre-dates to 2018 but only emerged during the lock-down period.”

She further adds: “We are now looking at the safest way we can collect data in terms of women’s experiences during the 15-day lockdown. We want to do this with our own client list because I believe we already have their trust, and through their counsellors, they will be willing to share their experiences. We want to talk to the lived realities of the lockdown and its impact on women and the violence they experienced. We have read up on different ways that data has been collected globally and have resources that UN Women has shared.”

UN Women’s Ending Violence Against Women and Girls program is supported by the Pacific Partnership to End Violence Against Women and Girls (Pacific Partnership). Pacific Partnership brings together governments, civil society organisations, communities and other partners to promote gender equality, prevent violence against women and girls (VAWG), and increase access to quality response services for survivors. The EUR22.7million program is funded primarily by the European Union (EUR12.7m) with targeted support from the governments of Australia (EUR6.2m) and New Zealand (EUR3.2m) and cost-sharing with UN Women (EUR0.6m). The Pacific Partnership program has three outcome areas which are coordinated by the Pacific Community (SPC) Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT), the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (Forum Secretariat) and the UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office (MCO). UN Women Fiji MCO implements the largest of the program’s three outcome areas, aiming to promote gender equitable social norms at individual and community levels to prevent violence against women and girls, and to ensure survivors have access to quality response services.