Insights and Analysis

Women: Frontline Responders in the Pacific Islands

May 12, 2021

By Sandra Kraushaar and Sharon Bhagwan Rolls

The question most frequently asked as we reestablish The Asia Foundation’s presence in the Pacific Islands is how will you partner in the region? The answer is relatively straightforward: listen and be open to a range of views, look for local reform efforts, respect local agency, amplify local voices and knowledge, and learn from the past.

The Pacific Islands make up a vast, diverse, and complex region. They are facing the compounding—some will say multiplier—effects of climate change in addition to health and economic challenges and a dramatic increase in gender-based violence due to the Covid-19 pandemic. These unfolding crises will have both sharp, immediate impacts and longer-term effects. The Pacific has faced development challenges in the past; many approaches have been tested, some successful and others not. To partner in the region, one needs to know and understand that history well.

Some of our women are dealing with six crises concurrently: Covid-19; drought; water scarcity; and volcanic ash, acid rain, and sulfur gas, as we have several active volcanos. – Flora Vano, country program manager, ActionAid Vanuatu.[/box] Despite having some of the most drastic gender-inequality markers in the world, an area where the Pacific has made measurable progress is in women’s empowerment—changing behaviors, improving health and education outcomes, and elevating women’s voices. Pacific women are increasingly visible in global, regional, national, and community forums, voicing their concerns and connecting people with lived experiences in the Pacific region. They have been frontline responders to the pandemic and the emerging effects of the climate crisis.

The Shifting the Power Coalition (StPC) was established in 2016 to build the collective power, influence, and leadership of Pacific women to shape inclusive responses to natural disasters and climate change. The Coalition includes the Pacific Disability Forum and 12 women-led civil society organizations from across the Pacific Islands: ActionAid (Australia and Vanuatu); the Fiji Disabled People’s Federation; the Nazareth Centre for Rehabilitation; the Talitha Project; Transcend Oceania; the YWCAs of Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and the Solomon Islands; Vanuatu Young Women for Change; the Vanuatu Disability Promotion and Advocacy Association; and Vois Blong Mere Solomon.

Some of our women are dealing with six crises concurrently: Covid-19; drought; water scarcity; and volcanic ash, acid rain, and sulfur gas, as we have several active volcanos.

– Flora Vano, country program manager, ActionAid Vanuatu.

Women outside discussing plans for the coalition

Members of the Shifting the Power Coalition lead the response to Cyclone Yasa in 2021

The Coalition’s work is grounded in Pacific regional policy, priorities, and initiatives, and its reach extends to 100,000 Pacific women through its members’ networks. Its impact includes mobilizing national networks of women and community leaders for a transformative and rights-based response to disasters, pandemics, and climate change. The leadership of diverse young women is a priority investment.

Diverse young women have the solutions that work for them. With the combined experience of members of the Coalition … we’re able to understand what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, [helping] coalition partners to understand where we’ve come from, where we go next, and how we go about that journey.

– Carolyn Kitione, regional young women’s focal point, StPC


Group of young women pose with brochures detailing women's leadership and disability inclusion in humanitarian action

Young women of the Shifting the Power Coalition learn about women’s leadership and disability inclusion in humanitarian action


StPC is building an inclusive, feminist model of partnership and collaboration, rather than replicating existing patriarchal systems of practice, and this requires listening to young women and providing them with safe, intergenerational spaces in which to learn and develop. The Coalition helps women get the resources they need—including the time and space to meet—to participate, deliberate, design, and deliver what works for women and their local communities. The Coalition concentrates on women’s activism, Pacific-driven innovation, and humanitarian expertise. It mobilized rapid-response support for women during the Samoa measles epidemic, the Covid-19 crisis, and powerful recent cyclones, and supports local women to lead disaster response and recovery, including women with disabilities.

The Shifting the Power Coalition is amplifying the voices of women with disabilities at all levels…. It is making change for an inclusive society.

– Lanieta Tuimabu, Fiji Disabled People’s Federation


Group of women discussing and detailing plans for the coalition

Women of the Shifting the Power Coalition lead a community-based training of trainers


The Asia Foundation’s Pacific Islands program has been working with the Shifting the Power Coalition to develop an internal PowerShift Fund, a flexible fund to support the Coalition’s programs. The StPC is a deliberately intersectional, cross-cutting coalition—in its membership and its intent—and members face enormous expectations to attend meetings, conduct research, network, and advocate. Generally, when donors fund the activities of organizations they provide only minimal support for core business activities—overhead—which are seen as the organization’s contribution to the cause. The PowerShift Fund will do both, supporting programming new and old while also providing funds to improve staff development, internal governance, and financial systems so that they are equipped to continue their work.

The StPC Steering Committee, made up of Coalition members, has already identified some priorities for support:

    • Build partner capacity to participate in public planning and decision-making, to ensure that intersectional needs during the pandemic are being heard and met.
    • Develop and promote innovative approaches, led by Pacific women, to the many challenges that women face from natural disasters and climate change.
    • Share learning across the Coalition from its diverse constituencies that distills insights into intersectional approaches to Covid-19, climate change, natural disasters, and gender-based violence, in order to influence government and civil society.

We are pleased that The Asia Foundation is joining this effort, which is already well under way in the Pacific. This kind of locally led work can serve as a model for other regions facing similar challenges from climate change, Covid-19, and more frequent climate-related disasters.

Sandra Kraushaar is The Asia Foundation’s Pacific Islands director, and Sharon Bhagwan Rolls is the technical adviser to the Shifting the Power Coalition. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Pacific Islands
Related programs: Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality
Related topics: Covid-19

1 Comment

  1. A very inspiring story, not only holding out hope for the Pacific Islander women, but for the developing world at large, of home driven innovations finding their due place in the development community’s efforts to make a difference. The Asia Foundation – India has begun implementing the India Development Partnership Activity (IDPA) project with disaster risk reduction initiatives in the Indo-Pacific utilizing the Indian experience as one of the focus sectors. StPC and similar initiatives will find utility in guiding the IDPA towards practical solutions for the challenges faced by the Pacific Islands in disasters in general and Covid-19 related issues in particular.

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