Her Power, Our Power: Pacific Women Shifting the Power in Humanitarian Action and Climate Change.

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls
Posted December 29, 2020 from Fiji
Collaboration with women with disabilities is a vital commitment of the Coalition's partnership model (1/3)

In February 2016 as I tracked category five TC Winston across Fiji one person reached out to me. Michelle Higelin, now the Executive Director of ActionAid Australia. She saw how Women’s Weather Watch was working and simply asked me: “how can we help?” Within a week we had organised support for local network leaders to undertake immediate women-led assessment in 3 of the most badly affected centres in North West Viti Levu. Within a month we presented a fundraising plan to DFAT build on existing programme infrastructure. Within two months we had organised a reflection and training workshop on Community Based Protection. Local women leaders presented our strategies and recommendations to the Minister, the Director NDMO and key government officials. By July, 50 women leaders had received community-based protection training and presented their recommendations in a formal report to the Minister. Their experiences were reflected in the Lessons Learnt from TC Winston. The rural women leaders went on to provide their recommendations on the review of the National Humanitarian Policy and National Disaster Management Review. Young women participated in the World Humanitarian Summit engaging with national leaders from the region.  Local women’s leadership, experience and recommendations were amplified. We came together in 2016 to form the Shifting the Power Coalition.

Driving Accountability to Localisation Commitments

Today the Shifting the Power Coalition, in line with the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit’s Agenda for Humanity, continues to address the critical barriers to inclusive humanitarian action and disaster management:

1)      The institutional marginalisation and exclusion of women in decision-making spaces on humanitarian action and broader security debates;

2)      The absence of diverse women’s voices and experiences informing inclusive disaster planning, response and recovery; and

3)      The increased threat of protection risks facing women, which are particularly acute in remote and rural communities with limited access to timely and relevant information and services.

Since 2018, DFAT’s Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development support to our Strengthening Diverse Leadership in Humanitarian Action programme means we there is support for local and national action and regional collaboration for 13 women–led CSOs in 6 Pacific Forum member countries, supporting their capacity to directly reach close to 40,000 diverse women. Pacific women are leading south-south collaboration that focuses on a) shared learning and mutual capacity development b) resourcing of locally-led emergency response; c) supporting our innovations in early warning and protection and d) collective engagement in regional disaster planning.  

Together, we are the only women-led regional alliance focused sustaining support for diverse women leaders to increase capacity to engage in humanitarian and disaster coordination mechanisms. The Coalition works across the humanitarian, development and peacebuilding nexus, based on the partners priorities and collectively prioritise young women’s leadership and disability rights and inclusion as part of promoting an intersectional approach that goes beyond a generic approach to ‘gender’ as if all women’s experiences were the same. We are actively engaging with traditional and faith-based leaders, and continuously focused on bringing diverse women’s priorities and voices into relevant policy making spaces at regional, national and sub-national level.

Because - localisation is not just about supporting us after a cyclone or pandemic hits. Localisation is enhancing women’s leadership in

  • Preparedness for national and local disasters through the use of climate services and COVID19 information;
  • Community based protection in collaboration with police and faith community;  
  • Relief and Recovery including in Post Disaster Need Assessments and long term recovery planning;
  • National and sub-national systems - supporting our innovative approaches to cross gender dialogues to navigate through “customary barriers”;
  • Resource management – including the management of flexible and long term funding   

Partnership Values:

As a feminist coalition we agree there is no longer room for parachute responses or “cut and paste” advocacy on our behalf.  This is vital for members to know that this partnership provides trusted collaboration and a vital voice and ally in the international humanitarian coordination space. Our model of organising – is also Shifting the Power. ActionAid Australia as an equal partner in the Coalition ensures, as a women’s rights focused humanitarian organisation, that Coalition members are supported to engage in the multiple complexities and navigate the humanitarian system. We are working together to bring about a change so that humanitarian action does not regard us as vulnerable beneficiaries but rather builds on our indigenous and localised knowledge; it enables resources – including the time and space to meet – to reach us – when we need it – enabling us to have the ability to deliberate, participate, design and deliver what works for us and our communities.  We have a Secretariat and technical advice and support readily available so that Coalition leadership and focal points including young women and women with disabilities have the support to meet, deliberate and operationalise community mobilisation in humanitarian engagement.

ActionAid Australia plays a critical role supporting financial management, compliance and risk management, bringing humanitarian expertise and targeted capacity support for Coalition. Facilitating transparent sharing and collective decision making around budgets so that Coalition members can prioritise where investments can make the best impact.  As the Fiji based Technical Adviser, my role brings the experience and expertise from the Pacific women’s movement to support coordination, forging strategic partnerships with other humanitarian actors and allies in the region.

Collective Organising, Local Action, Regional Impact:

Since 2016, the Coalition has shown how space for women’s organising and convening is critical so that women can come into decision making and policy spaces with clear priorities, as well as access to information.

We have a workable model that continues to transfer skills and knowledge to a wider group of women leaders, recognising their agency and capacity, and we maintain a South-to-South exchange focus, holding up Pacific led innovations, and not seeing capacity building as a one way North to South transfer: Woman Wetem Weta - also a ‘product’ of South to South exchange within the coalition and enables ActionAid Vanuatu to use ICT platforms to support women are dealing with multiple threats, to work closely with local agencies and elevate the voice and agency of diverse Pacific women in decision-making processes.

Regional consultations and training programmes bring together the perspectives of diverse rural women, women with disabilities, peacebuilders, humanitarian actors and young women through collaborative learning.  Localised training following our 2019 Regional Training of Trainers on Women’s Leadership and Disability Inclusion in Humanitarian Action resulted in 6000 women from local clubs and networks to become part of national efforts to shift the power in disaster management and humanitarian action.

Our “On the Mat” series demonstrates that women’s leadership also needs to be supported and resourced not only through workshops and training programmes but by dedicating time, resources and information to enable women’s organising and convening around national processes to progress collective goals. Listening and Learning together we are seeing important developments in disaster management system that is resulting in gender equality and social inclusion language in disaster management policies.

Coalition members also organise and prepare together for the Pacific cyclone season.

Information sharing and outreach collaboration enables the Coalition to identify the steps needed to ensure the national and local disaster management systems remain accountable.  Together we identify the strategic areas where we need to build leadership capacities, to use inclusive data in advocacy - across the cluster system with a range of actors including specialist agencies such as agriculture and health, as well as defence and security.

Almost four years since TC Winston, I’m in midst of coordinating a rapid response with the focal points of the 3 Fiji partners of the Coalition. The emergency response team will provide targeted emergency relief – including food, water, hygiene kits and non-food items – to 225 households, including emergency care packages to 50 women with disabilities through FDPF’s Emergency Operations Centre.  Already the partners have identified the need for additional funding to scale up emergency relief to affected communities as well as resource women to lead community-based protection responses to reduce and respond to threats to their safety and dignity.  Of particular concern is the longer-term livelihood recovery support will also be needed as many households seek to rebuild post-COVID-19 and TC Yasa. Communities hit by TC Yasa are still struggling with the economic impacts of COVID-19. We urgently need to support people to rebuild their livelihoods, and women must be a priority to avoid a deepening of gender inequality and poverty.

Since 2019 Pacific Women funding enabled the Coalition to establishment our emergency grant mechanism that provides access to rapid response funding for partners to determine and drive their immediate priorities when disaster strikes. This can include funding for research/needs assessment, staffing capacity, targeted responses to community need but what is critical is local decision making about use of funds within a broad focus of supporting women’s leadership in humanitarian action.

Our first grant ensured that response and recovery efforts of the 2019 Samoan measles outbreak included the high-risk groups of young, sexually-active and pregnant women.  The grant supported the YWCA to raise awareness of the gendered impacts of the measles epidemic and how the crisis was affecting people with disabilities and the LGBTQI community.  It was locally led building on the advice, knowledge and networks of the local partner.

This year the Fiji Disabled People’s Federation is catalysing strategies to develop longer term support to empower women with disabilities to advocate on issues and challenges that they face and to prevent further discrimination in the context of COVID19 recovery as well as in disaster management. In addition to supporting baseline assessment information for emergency packs, the outreach has resulted in data and documentation has identified ways to engage women with diverse disabilities to rise into leadership positions within the local DPO branch. It was an emergency response for women, led by women and supported by women.

Subsequently the Emergency Grant mechanism provides a much-needed avenue for coalition members to quickly access crisis funds. Since 2019, a total of AUD $36,500 has been disbursed to 7 Coalition partners in response to the Samoa measles epidemic, COVID-19 and TC Harold emergency response.  In the wake of the Category 5 TC Yasa days ahead of Christmas, we mobilised more than AUD20,000 to reach the focal points of our 3 Fiji based partners of the Coalition.


Since 2016 the Shifting the Power Coalition has demonstrated that investing in a regional women-led coalition can enable transformative change guided by feminist principles. It is strengthening the collective power and influence of diverse women-led local organisations in the humanitarian space - one of the key decision-making spaces where Pacific Islander women’s leadership have been notably absent.

This requires sustained resources over time to shift power for – coordination, capacity development, information exchange and mutual learning, staffing capacity as well as access to and engagement in decision making structures.

Looking ahead we also see that localisation will be more effective when we can work at the intersection of climate change, disasters and the WPS agendas with complimentary and coordinated approaches and resources.  This approach is also supported by evidence-based findings from Monash University’s Gender, Peace and Security Centre in collaboration with ActionAid (2019), which identified that valuing women’s local knowledge, increasing women’s participation and collective action, and resourcing women’s networks and organizations provides the groundwork for a more integrated, gender-responsive approach to intersecting crises.

The Shifting the Power Coalition works to redesign the table, define and demonstrate meaningful participation in our village communities, in local government, national and regional decision making.  An inclusive Localisation Agenda is therefore about trusted partnerships, shared power and sustained investment in women-led organising, capacity enhancement, and solidarity.  It is also about recognising the diversity of women’s experiences rather than a one size fits all approach to gender; and that consultation is not the same as equitable and meaningful participation in decision making.



Comments 6

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Karen Quiñones-Axalan
Dec 29, 2020
Dec 29, 2020

Hello, dear Sharon,

Kudos to you and your team/coalition for working hard to bring inclusion to women with disabilities in the context of climate change and disasters. There is so much to learn from you. Thank you for always updating us here.

May your movement continue to bring ripples of change in 2021!

Dec 29, 2020
Dec 29, 2020

Hi sis Sharon,
Wow, what a great deal of work you and your team are doing bringing women as your priority for change. May your movement create more and more change.
All best wishes.
Eseza Mukyala...... Lots of love!

Nini Mappo
Dec 30, 2020
Dec 30, 2020

What a glowing report from you and the team at Shifting the Power Coalition! It is encouraging to see what you have consistently built within such a short time. Thank you for the update and all the best for the coming year.

Tamarack Verrall
Dec 30, 2020
Dec 30, 2020

Dear Sharon,
By laying out the steps you have taken, your model of organizing throughout the development of "Shifting the Power" you lay out a blueprint for us all. "...a change so that humanitarian action does not regard us as vulnerable beneficiaries but rather builds on our indigenous and localised knowledge". Now covering such a large area of the Pacific Islands. Ensuring that women with diverse needs have those needs addressed, and most importantly, have their voices heard because of this shared leadership. You have brought village leadership to the local, national and international tables. To respond to emergencies. "Our model of organising – is also Shifting the Power". "...consultation is not the same as equitable and meaningful participation in decision making". Huge congratulations, and thank you for this full description of what is possible and how to make it happen.
In sisterhood,

Queen Sheba D Cisse
Dec 30, 2020
Dec 30, 2020

Greetings Sharon,
what a great collection of work you have achieved there on your side of the world. The Coalition team is creating a pathway to serve the many citizens who most like are hopeful for what The Shifting the Power Coalition has to offer and no doubt in time will be able to make a bigger impact to for all of the customers( citizens with disabilities) involved.
Thank you for sharing such plentiful information and congratulations!

Mama Queen

Shirley Asiedu-Addo
Jan 21
Jan 21

Sharon dear, power to your and your team. Women's involvement is crucial in every aspect of our communities' development. Well done.