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Women, Storm Sentinels of the South Pacific


Papua New Guinea women broadcaster and journalist
In Papua New Guinea, Shirley Walai, a radio announcer, left, and Carol Umbo, a journalist, at NBC studio in Lae. In the typhoon-prone Pacific, women across the small island nations act as "weather women," providing news on approaching storms. JACQUELINE SMART FERGUSON

When hugely damaging natural disasters strike in developing nations, many deaths occur because warnings and lifesaving advice do not reach people in the path of violent storms, floods or other threats. Decades of calls for better communications and disaster preparedness could not prevent 130,000 people from dying in Bangladesh in a 1991 cyclone, nearly 300,000 perishing in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 or at least 140,000 in a cyclone that flattened villages in the Irrawaddy Delta of Burma in 2008.

Send in the women.

In the typhoon-prone Pacific, women scattered over widely separated islands in a vast sea have a model for monitoring approaching storms and disaster management in their communities, providing real-time information with a local touch. They call it the Women’s Weather Watch, a project of FemLinkPacific, based in Fiji. FemLinkPacific, a major regional feminist organization working with the United Nations on peace and security, also advocates for rural women and gives them a media platform to make their voices heard.

In mid-December, when a killer tropical storm, Cyclone Evan, swept across Samoa and moved toward Fiji with winds well over 100 miles an hour, the Fijian weather women got busy with e-mails and mobile-phone messages, reporting first on imminent dangers and then on cases of people who needed help during the disaster and its aftermath. The storm was the worst to hit the region in decades, with many buildings damaged and high seas threatening the Fijian capital, Suva.

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Often in natural disasters, days or even weeks go by before much is known about what happened to people in remote areas. Community radio and the Women’s Weather Watch help fill these gaps in Fiji. On Dec. 18, for example, a message on the weather watch network advised that “all humanitarian assistance needs to target the specific needs of girls, nursing mothers, the elderly, persons with disabilities and also those who rely on specific medication (diabetes, hypertension, etc); National Disaster Management Office and local officials need to be reporting these details.”

Other messages identified power outages, food shortages, vulnerable people especially in need of help and the extent of destruction in various places scattered across islands. Some reports were very personal. “In Tavua the neighbors of our correspondent have lost their home,” a bulletin said. “The wooden structure collapsed due to the intensity of the winds and the family has relocated to an evacuation centre.”

Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls
Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, a founder of FemLinkPacific, a women's activist group based in Fiji that works on peace and security. MATHILDE BAGNERES/IPS

FemLinkPacific and its initiatives in the Pacific region owe a lot to the talent and hard work of Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, a Fijian who gave up a broadcasting career in 1999 to devote her time to developing community media and working with national and international campaigns in support of women in peacemaking.

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The turn of this century was a major moment for both Fiji and the UN, where Bhagwan-Rolls is now well known. In 2000, the year that the Security Council adopted the landmark Resolution 1325 on the role of women in peace and security, a coup occurred in Fiji – one of four in a 20-year period. Bhagwan-Rolls, by then secretary of the National Council of Women, became coordinator of Fiji’s Blue Ribbon Peace Vigil. During that period, she helped found FemLinkPacific, which has become a unique source of information and communications among women and nongovernmental organizations in the Pacific area, using radio, mobile networks, videos and workshops.

In 2010, Bhagwan-Rolls was named to the UN expert panel on the role of women in peace and security; and in 2012, Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women, appointed her to the agency’s Global Civil Society Advisory Group.

By 2002, Bhagwan-Rolls was ahead of many of her global peers in recognizing the power of local media and new technologies to send targeted messages and support local reporting. In a paper she wrote for a UN-sponsored experts’ meeting in 2002, she noted that “there seems to be an increased awareness of the opportunities that exist through the media to provide information about a rural council meeting – or adult education programs on farming or health – or simply to exchange ideas. . . . In terms of development, there needs to be almost an immediate switch from the top down approach to one where information from the village level is made available at all levels of policy planning and implementation.”

That approach is now demonstrable in the Women’s Weather Watch keeping tabs on how governments manage crises like Cyclone Evan.

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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