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Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls

Meet Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, the Regional Representative of the Shifting the Power Coalition in Fiji.

31 July 2022

Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls

Regional Representative of the Shifting the Power Coalition, Fiji

Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls is the Regional Representative of the Shifting the Power Coalition in Fiji. We asked her about the vital role women's leadership has for effective disaster risk reduction and resilience.

What is your role in building disaster risk resilience?

My name is Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls. I'm the Regional Representative of the Shifting the Power Coalition. I'm based in our regional hub in Suva, Fiji Islands. My role really is to support our 23 focal points, our 13 pacific island women leaders to connect across the wider Pacific Island feminist movement – to really look at how we can better drive accountability to women's rights to gender equality, to disability rights, to young women’s participation, to LGBTQ inclusion.

That basically means ensuring that disaster risk reduction systems – in fact the whole disaster management cycle, the resilience planning – is really inclusive. So that means being able to create spaces at the tables at the sub-national, national level and, of course, the regional level, which is where we connect at the regional hub level.

Also, to look at not just supporting one or two women's participation, but really driving the understanding that if we want inclusive accountable disaster risk reduction, it has to be with that diversity of women.

How can women’s leadership reduce vulnerability?

So when we talk about accountability and transformative action within the disaster management system in building resilient communities, that requires women's leadership, because it's a conduit for inclusion. Inclusion therefore means having that diversity of women, in terms of ensuring accountability, particularly to human rights standards at times of disasters, or any humanitarian crises. We can't put those aside.

What we've been able to see when women are leading is that there is change that happens and that usually starts in the most basic way, including access to information – to even understand things like weather systems, climate information, as well as also not only where they have to go if there is a disaster, but how to plan the evacuation centers, etc.

One example that is really exciting for us as the coalition, is the way in which we took the work here in Fiji of Women’s Weather Watch, which was something that I co-created during my time at Femilin Pacific. We were able to share that model in the early days of the Shifting the Power Coalition that was picked up by our partner organization, our sisters at ActionAid Vanuatu. We’ve subsequently seen Women Wet and Weather established in 2019. Then being able to do amazing work with the Women Tok Tok Tugeta (Women talk together) network in Vanuatu.

Also, during the COVID pandemic, that’s women leading women – leading in looking at how we access technology and information, and how we make that relevant to the lives of women. How we can make sure that the information really gets to women on the ground, to support their leadership in their communities. If you don't have women's leadership, you don't have innovation, you don't have inclusion, and you don't have accountability.

What barriers do women face in the disaster risk reduction field?

So when I talk about accountability and transformative action, it's really about making sure that – at the country level, within our different Pacific Island countries – that the commitments to women's rights, disability rights, inclusion, gender equality are integrated into national action plans. We have regional commitments to women's rights and gender equality, disability rights, but we're not seeing the transformation of commitments into action plans into the national policies and practice, when it comes to disaster management throughout the cycle.

So really, from the early warning early preparedness stage to the response and recovery – which is where we can really ensure the resilience building. So that’s really a barrier because you’re starting to have to tug between national women's machineries and NDMOs. That’s very exhausting for anyone, let alone women leaders trying to do the work in their small groups, clubs, and organizations. And for young women who are trying to step into leadership roles. And then, if you're already marginalised, because of your identity or ability, then it's even harder. So that's a critical barrier.

So I think one of the things we need for our Pacific Island countries is to really have that opportunity to bring together the commitments. In 2021, we've seen those commitments reflected in the outcomes of the Triennial Conference. We have the Regional Framework for Resilience development in the Pacific get the National Gender Action Plans - there’s CEDAW, etc.

It's not the what, it's the how. So I think that's what we have to overcome. It's not whether we need to be inclusive, etc. - that's a given. What is needed is the how. How does this work for rural coastal maritime women, women in mountainous regions, young women, women with disabilities, LGBTQ, etc. So i think one of the biggest barriers is we think too much about the what, we're not actually getting through to the how.

The other barrier is clearly resourcing. Dedicated financing both at the national level, in terms of the government machinery to be able to do the work, to be able to sit down and have a cohesive plan that connects to all of their commitments, to accountability, equality and inclusion.

And the resourcing for the diversity of the women's rights and feminist movement, to bring the evidence, to be able to show this is the how. So financing really needs to be addressed in a way that there's equitable resources given to government agencies to be able to do the work – to be able to understand that women are not just providing a nice community package of activities, but actually have the innovation, have the ideas, etc. So at all levels of decision-making, and then the dedicated, and what we call feminist financing – which is something that we do as the coalition – to ensure that resources reach women when, how and where they need it. We’ve seen that in the midst of pricey situations, whether it's been TC Yasa or other cyclones in the more recent past, as well as during the COVID pandemic. So I think equitable financing and the roles that intermediaries play – whether they're the UN agencies helping governments, or whether it’s women's rights coalitions and organizations like our own, as the Shifting the Power Coalition – to get the resources to the women and help them plan, learn, and shift the power.

How can we increase women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction?

Women's leadership is very diverse. We’re doing so many different things. Just as we learn through our coalition partners the different ways in which they've led responses to the volcanic crisis in Tonga this year, the intersecting crises of climate change and Covid, as well as dealing with some very critical issues that often marginalize them. When they're having to really deal with with issues of violence, as well. So one [aspect] is that enabling environment for women – to be able to organize and mobilize – that's really important. The other thing i'm really keen for our Pacific Island governments, and all technical people working in this area in our region, to recognize is that as Pacific Island women, we have been innovative with appropriate and accessible information communication technology that works for us and our communities.

That's why i'm really excited about our Shifting the Power Coalition power systems, because it's actually putting the equipment and the technology into the hands of women – that works for them. It's helping them identify ways that they can use technology. Then it's also building a collaboration with private sector.

The other piece of work within the intergovernmental process is greater coherence. We have so many commitments to gender equality right now, and for small countries like ours facing the biggest impact of the climate crisis, we really need the support of UN agencies and other intergovernmental partners to work with us from the civil society movement to be able to be that conduit with our governments.

And this is a critical role also for the regional intergovernmental organizations – to bring us together. The challenge really is that: to have that coherence, we do need to redesign the table so that there is accountability to women of all diversities. And so that we can collectively deal with what we need to be doing – which is this nexus between disaster, climate change, humanitarian action, and peace and security.