Surge in distress calls from women and children amid Fiji’s COVID-19 outbreak

By Devina Devi and Erica Lee

As the nation rushed to supermarkets to stock up on basic food supplies, some women and children were stocking up on worry and anxiety about the days ahead.

Who will come to our rescue? Where can we run to? Will we have enough phone credit or battery power to call for help? How can we avoid violence? Questions, playing out in the minds of survivors of domestic violence, preparing themselves to be trapped indoors during lockdown with their abusers and perpetrators of violence.

For organisations like Medical Services Pacific (MSP) and Building Innate Resilience Through Hearts (BIRTH) Fiji, these are anxieties, worries and stories of abuse shared on distress calls they have been receiving from women and children amid lockdowns and restricted movement brought on by the resurgence of COVID-19 positive cases in Fiji in mid April this year

“Some women said they have no choice but to stay in an abusive relationship especially for the sake of their young children. Some families are still scared to report domestic violence and have sought advice on how to diffuse stressful situations and to minimise conflict in the home just to make it through lockdown,” said Ashna Shaleen, Country Director of MSP.

Ms. Shaleen said that under the pressure of COVID-19 restrictions,, irregular income, unemployment, growing uncertainties, hunger and patriarchy, some men are finding it hard to cope with not being able to support their families.

“Compared to last year, this year’s long period of lockdown has meant a lot of families are beyond desperation. Women are taking on more responsibilities even having to find food for their families.  Some women are working longer hours as they are part of health or essential services.  This doesn’t sit well with some of their husbands who develop insecurities and are not happy with having to look after their children or carry out duties that they think a woman should be doing in the household,” she added.

MSP is a recognised essential service provider with offices in Suva, Lautoka and Labasa. Apart from providing sexual reproductive health and rights services through their clinics, the organisation also provides counselling, mobile clinical services for women and girls and legal literacy support. The organisation has a comprehensive maritime outreach program providing these much-needed services that’s are inaccessible for for rural communities.  MSP is the only organisation in Fiji providing the one-stop-shop EVAW service model under one roof.

Through its strong partnerships with the Ministry of Health and Medical Services and the Fiji Police Force, MSP has been operating 24/7 to ensure that domestic violence and sexual assault cases are prioritised and that women have the right support to flee their abusers if the need arises.  From April 15th – June 15th, Ms. Shaleen says MSP recorded 290 cases (through their helpline, referrals from the Fiji Police and in-person reporting).  Compared to the first quarter of 2021, MSP noted a 20% increase in cases.  In regards to gender-based violence cases, MSP also provided psychosocial and legal support for 53 individuals, a 96% increase compared to the first quarter of 2021.  During this period, MSP relocated a few women and families facing gender-based violence to anonymous designated safe houses.

The Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC) also reported cases of extreme violence against women during the first three weeks of this year’s lockdown. FWCC received 300 calls in April and 800 in May[1], with 75 % related to gender-based violence.  FWCC Director Shamima Ali said there were many instances of cohesive control where husbands were controlling every aspect of women’s lives down to the time they spent on certain tasks.

Adhering to COVID-19 guidelines, BIRTH Fiji’s counsellors who are based in the Western Division have moved to working from home but continue to provide their services via phone thus keeping their clients and themselves safe. In these challenging times, BIRTH Fiji has observed that many women are finding it difficult to seek help due to the lack of privacy, safety and ownership of a mobile phone within their homes.

“The safety of our clients and counsellors are paramount, so all necessary precautions are followed to ensure our assistance does not putting any of their lives at risk. Both our clients and our team are finding innovative ways to communicate the support that is required especially if a woman is in a dire situation.  Where there is a case of violence, we immediately refer these to the appropriate agencies to assist.  Our role is to help our clients get through mental distress due to physical and psychological trauma such as domestic violence, abuse, and discrimination.  This crisis has also been really hard for children also to cope with,” said Nisha Khan BIRTH Fiji Coordinator.

BIRTH Fiji has been providing psychological support to patients and staff of the Viseisei Sai Health Center in Vuda. The Health Center was used as a temporary maternity unit when Lautoka Hospital had become an exclusive COVID-19 care facility.  Apart from ensuring that expectant mothers received support, BIRTH Fiji also sourced funding to support patients who had come unprepared for their delivery. Items included baby products and diapers, sanitary pads and personal hygiene products.

BIRTH Fiji says it has been inundated with requests for groceries from many informal communities in Lautoka.

“Through the generosity of our friends and families, we were able to distribute 260 food vouchers to families in Vitogo, Paipai, Tavakubu, Lovu Seaside, Tabuka, Saweni, Vuda Point and Wairabetia.   BIRTH Fiji has used these food rations as an opportunity to also disseminate Information from the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement on gender; gender-based violence and referral agencies’ contacts.  BIRTH Fiji believes that the information package will connect women to counsellors or encourage women facing violence to reach out for help.

The nature of both organisations work means that the good they are doing for the community is unseen and mostly on an unpaid volunteer basis. Every new day brings unexpected turns for them as they reach out to women and children who are needing refuge from the abuse and violence within their homes. Both organisations have received core funding support from the Australian Government through the Fiji Women’s Fund which allows them to continue to provide their crucial services.