In the words of Varanisese Maisamoa: “We want to empower our market vendors to be climate resilient”

In February 2016, Tropical Cyclone Winston devastated Fiji, showing the heightened vulnerability of people living in the Pacific Islands, where climate change has led to a series of increasingly severe cyclones in recent years. Farms were decimated and markets, like the Rakiraki Market and accommodation centre for rural women, were destroyed, leaving many market vendors (three quarters of whom are women) without an income.

Varanisese Maisamoa was one of these women.

Today, with the help of UN Women’s Markets for Change project, Varanisese has not only got back on her feet, she has also become a strong leader in her community. This is her story.

Varanisese Maisamoa. Photo: UN Women/Murray Lloyd.

“For most of us women market vendors, we focus only on coming to the market to make money. But what if there is a cyclone or flooding that makes it impossible for us to be in the market?

When I joined the Rakiraki Market back in 2007, I noticed the struggle that women market vendors were enduring day to day. Their security was not protected, there was a continuous disruption of the water supply, and there was no proper lighting. I realised that they had been in this situation for 15, 20 years or more, and nobody had ever listened to their plea.

I decided to form a women’s group to help us raise our issues as one voice. From then, I started knocking on doors and raising the issues that these women had been trying to resolve for years. That’s how, in 2015, I met two women in the market from UN Women’s Markets for Change project.

After attending the leadership and financial literacy workshops, forums and trainings organised by UN Women, I took up the initiative to form the Rakiraki Market Vendors Association in 2016. After Cyclone Winston, it was important to include everybody in market decision-making. We want to empower our market vendors to be climate resilient.

Since then, we have worked with UN Women on the market’s very first “Action Plan to Build Resilience to Climate Change and Disasters”. We know that to be resilient we need to diversify [our sources of income], so we are training our women vendors on how to make handicrafts and in other small businesses such as money lending and catering.

My husband challenged me and said, “Talking on behalf of these women, will it help your business grow?”

I said, if I am not speaking up for these women, I am not speaking up for myself, my daughters, my mother, or my grandmother.

Through UN Women’s leadership training, I learned to be confident when speaking out about the issues affecting the market vendors and to negotiate with the market council management.

Today I am proud of what the association has achieved in terms of improving the safety of the women vendors’ working place. I’m looking forward to a market that is safer, better ventilated, with facilities such as changing areas for babies, improved toilets and a female market attendant. Our vendors also know what to do before, during and after a disaster.

We have been empowered by UN Women’s Markets for Change project. Now it is our time, as women market vendors, to support economic growth for our villages, community and country.”

As Founder and President of the Rakiraki Market Vendors Association (RMVA), Varanisese’s insights have been critical in helping UN Women adapt the Markets for Change project to provide humanitarian support to market vendors impacted by the cyclone.

RMVA were also consulted throughout the reconstruction of the Rakiraki Market, which reopened in June 2020. The market now has enhanced amenities, improved water and sanitation, and better lighting, resulting in a safer, more secure venue for rural women vendors.