SPC: Stepping Stones to Gender Equality, HIV Awareness and Coping with Climate Change

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Suva, Fiji – Community participation and decision making are key to promoting gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, and an understanding of how climate change affects these issues.

This is the view of Stepping Stones Fiji Project Officer Tura Lewai, who said, ‘Sessions on gender are the main sessions in all the communities where we do our advocacy work.

‘We believe that awareness of gender inequalities must come before we can properly undertake HIV awareness work.’

Stepping Stones is a series of workshops funded by the Pacific Islands HIV and STI Response Fund and implemented by the Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific International. The Stepping Stones programme is helping communities see the link between gender inequality, gender-based violence and HIV, and how climate change plays a role in adding to women’s burdens.

The Response Fund, which is financed by major donors — the Australian Agency for

International Development and the New Zealand Agency for International Development — is managed by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). It is financially supporting programmes aimed at making a difference in communities across the region.

[ Stepping Stones Fiji Project Officer, Mr Tura Lewai.]

With traditional gender roles that influence power and privilege, women’s vulnerability is increased by a dependence on natural resources for their livelihoods, resources that are threatened by climate change. Added to their vulnerability are low incomes and secondary responsibilities, such as caring for the elderly and children.

While acknowledging the importance of culture, Mr Lewai said that raising awareness about gender equality has become a primary objective of the Stepping Stones programme. It is the first step towards implementing a human rights-based approach to raising awareness about HIV and climate change, and is proving to be effective in many of Stepping Stones’ outreach programmes.

SPC’s Climate Change Advisor Pasha Carruthers said, ‘Climatic conditions and extreme events will hurt food security and the well-being of Pacific Islanders, with women bearing the brunt of the impact due to the responsibility they hold in Pacific communities in relation to food security, health and the well-being of a household.’

Sixty-two year-old matriarch Priya Wati can attest to the impact a changing climate and extreme weather events are having on her family’s lives. For the past 40 years, Mrs Wati has lived in the farming community of Sabeto, between Nadi and Lautoka on the western side of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu.

In the space of three years, she has witnessed a level of flooding and associated destruction that she had not encountered before in a region previously renowned for its fertile soils and hot, sunny weather.

Yet in 2012 alone, the family’s crops and livestock were twice destroyed by floods. The April flood, described as Fiji’s worst, wiped out the family’s efforts to replant their crops after the February flood.

Mrs Wati said, ‘In the past, we didn’t have to run to higher round, because the rain was just enough to water our farms. These weather patterns are very confusing to an old person like me. We used to know how to tell the seasons and forecast changes by observing our natural surroundings. Now it’s very hard.’

Mr Lewai believes that increasing community awareness about HIV and climate change will be made easier as people learn to address imbalances in power and control within their communities.

‘The increasing demand for Stepping Stones in the Pacific region speaks volumes for the success of the programme. It has been embedded in the National Strategic Plan for Fiji until 2014, and is being implemented in Cook Islands, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga and the Northern Pacific,’ said Mr Lewai.