BURENITU VILLAGE, Fiji – At the end of a narrow dirt path on Fiji’s main island, Burenitu village is dotted with tents. Tin rooftops and wooden boards lie strewn across the lush grass.
Last year, a powerful cyclone struck the South Pacific archipelago, destroying more than 30,000 homes and displacing more than 150,000 people across the island, and Burenitu is still recovering. The storm was the strongest to hit the Southern Hemisphere in recorded history.
Eta Tuvuki, a 38-year-old single mother, was sitting at home as the wind and rain grew stronger by the minute. “All around, I couldn’t see anything, just the timber and the roofing, which was just flying about,” she says.
Tuvuki and her five children ran for safety to an aunt’s house nearby. “Within half an hour, it all came down. The area was all flattened,” she says. The storm completely destroyed the home she had lived in for 20 years.
“I don’t even know where my roof is. Imagine looking directly at your home being dismantled by this cyclone right before your eyes. How can you recover from that trauma?” she asks.
Carrying the Megaphone
Climate scientists point to warming oceans as a factor behind last year’s disastrous Category 5 storm. Low-lying islands in the South Pacific face some of the worst effects of climate change, and even slight changes in ocean temperatures can wreak havoc. So it’s fitting that in November, Fiji will be the first Pacific island nation to preside over U.N. climate talks at the COP 23 summit.
Having survived one catastrophic storm, Tuvuki says women need to be prepared for a future of extreme weather. She’s on a mission to amplify her community’s voices so that decision makers understand how climate change is taking a toll on women’s lives.
As a rural leader for the Fiji-based FemLinkPacific nonprofit organization, Tuvuki serves as a vital link between women in her village and the government, aid agencies and other decision makers in Suva, Fiji’s capital.
As part of her duties, Tuvuki interviews women in 10 nearby villages, covering more than 150 households.
“I just call them up for a meeting and ask them questions about what they are going through, what hardships they are facing daily,” she says.
She says it’s much easier for women to share their concerns with her one-on-one, rather than at public village meetings, which are often dominated by men. She meets with FemLink’s staff to pass on this information during monthly meetings, and they then relay that information to decision makers in the capital.
Tuvuki also shares some of the women’s stories on a women’s radio station run by FemLink, FemTalk89FM.
The lack of female leaders on the island can prevent women from seeking or receiving assistance after a climate catastrophe, Tuvuki says. But through her interviews, she has pinpointed the most pressing issues facing women in the villages.
Since the cyclone knocked out water sources in the disaster zone, women have to walk much further to find clean water. The storm also wiped out farms and crucial crops that had sustained families. Tuvuki says this devastation of the food supply greatly affects women, who are responsible for feeding and taking care of their children.
Through her work with FemLink, Tuvuki hopes to get rural women the support they need to restore the farms they lost in the cyclone, train as emergency first responders, and become leaders within their patriarchal communities.
“I want to voice my opinions and my views about what I’m facing at the grassroots level for the people at the top of the ladder,” she says. “I’m representing the shy moms, the shy ladies, the shy grandmothers, who cannot come out of their shell and share what they’re going through.”
A Network of Weather Women
FemLink also runs the Women’s Weather Watch, launched in 2009, to keep women informed about upcoming storms, rainfall and flooding.
Because last year’s cyclone knocked out television signals and electricity in several villages, many people have no idea when to evacuate in case of another cyclone. FemLink’s staff collects real-time weather information from Fiji’s Meteorological Office and sends text message alerts to rural women leaders.
Then, women leaders across the island text these weather alerts to all the households in their village. Local women also send texts about local weather conditions back to FemLink’s staff in Suva.
Through the Weather Watch network, rural families can quickly and easily be alerted to imminent storms, says local FemLink organizer Fane Lomani.
For Tuvuki, last year’s disaster was a wake-up call. She’s now preparing her family for a future of climate catastrophes. “I’ll get everything ready in case anything happens. I’ll put all the warm clothes, the medication, and the first aid kits into a well-packed bag,” she says.
“When a storm strikes, you just grab your stuff and out you go. That’s the advice I’ve been giving my kids, for them to be ready at all times.”
Sonia Narang reported in Fiji with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).
This story has been updated to include Fane Lomani’s full name.