Author: Emma Cabascia

Fiji, a small island developing state located in the South Pacific, is facing a multitude of vulnerabilities because of climate change. This is due to a combination of factors, including geography, economy, and social structure. Fiji consists of an archipelago of more than 300 islands, many of which are low-lying and highly susceptible to sea level rise and storm surges. The country’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture, fisheries, and tourism, which are all sensitive to climate variability and extreme weather events such as cyclones, droughts, and floods. Furthermore, Fiji’s social fabric, with many indigenous communities living in remote and isolated areas, challenges people’s resilience to climatic stressors. These facets, combined with the country’s limited resources and capacity to adapt, make Fiji one of the most exposed countries in the world to a fast-changing climate, with internal displacement representing a new reality for a growing number of people.

Fiji and Planned Relocation: An “option of last resort” to Adapt to Climate Change
Within this framework, as low-lying coastal communities in Fiji are constantly threatened by rising sea levels and flooding, planned relocation is increasingly being given attention as a preemptive resettlement strategy, with potential pathways and necessary governance, finance, and institutional arrangements to support state-led mobility options being explored. Typically initiated, supervised, and implemented from the national to local level, planned relocation involves the deliberate and organized movement of people – usually small communities – and infrastructure from areas that are no longer safe or viable due to climate change impacts.

Back in 2014, planned relocation was first identified as a key strategy for adaptation by the Fijian Climate Change Division, which since then has begun working with communities to assess their vulnerability and identify potential relocation sites. In 2018, Fiji released Planned Relocation Guidelines (PRG), officially acknowledging planned relocation solutions as an integrated component of adaptation strategies in relation to environmental change while also defining it as an option of last resort, to be implemented only when all adaptation options have been exhausted (Fiji Ministry of Economy, 2018). In April 2023, the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were also published, aiming at supporting a full operationalization of PRG and ensuring adherence to the idea of a consultative, bottom-up, and human-centered approach (Republic of Fiji, 2023). To date, six communities have been relocated, with about 42 Fijian villages needing potential relocation in the next five to ten years (The Guardian, 2022).

A Gender Analysis of Planned Relocation in Fiji
While it often represents a necessary response to climatic stressors, planned relocation can be highly demanding and controversial, especially for those who tend to be more vulnerable to disaster displacements, such as indigenous communities, young people, and women (IDMC, 2020). Despite literature showing that gender dynamics play a significant role in shaping the experiences of men and women during climate migration processes (Phudoma et al., 2021), such a relational dimension is often overlooked in the context of planned relocation.

For this reason, I decided to conduct some research to assess to what extent gendered patterns might shape both pre-relocation, in-relocation, and post-relocation phases, with the aim of shedding light on the experiences of Fijian people involved in relocation processes while identifying the main challenges and possible shortcomings. Semi-structured interviews were the primary method of data collection. Both participants were from Fiji. The first respondent was Sivendra Michael, Ph.D. in Development Economics and International Development from the University of Auckland and Disaster Management Specialist at the UNDP Pacific Office. The second respondent was Frances Namoumou, Program Manager for the Pacific Conference of Churches.

Key Findings

1.       Fiji’s Culture is Still Dominated by Patriarchal Dynamics

Women’s rights in Fiji have improved significantly in recent years, but obstacles and deficiencies remain. According to the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, women in Fiji face high levels of violence, with an estimated two-thirds of female individuals having experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime (Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, 2013). Furthermore, women in Fiji continue to face significant barriers to accessing education and employment opportunities, with lower rates of female participation in the formal workforce compared to men (DIVA, 2019). Despite these challenges, there have been efforts to promote women’s rights and gender equality in Fiji, including through the development of policies and programs aimed at addressing gender-based violence and promoting women’s economic empowerment (Fijian Government, 2018).

When asked about the role gender played in relocation processes during my interviews, both participants traced differences between sexes in experiencing this form of climate mobility to patriarchy, deemed as one of the key contributing factors to gender inequalities in Fiji. Sivendra Michael told me about the way the culture embraced by ocean communities in the Pacific is entrenched in a maternal understanding of Mother Nature, which still informs traditional gender roles rooted in patriarchal dynamics.

The Pacific Ocean and Mother Nature are rooted in maternal linkages. Just like nature nurtures women, women nurture nature as well. In a patriarchal setting, like Fiji, men are still the harvesters, and women are the nurturers.”

On a similar note, Frances Namoumou gave insights on how women’s participation in community discussions is largely limited, with their contribution being minimal and often coming from a strict and privileged minority.

A lot of the culture in the Pacific is very patriarchal, you may see women in the community hall, but you hardly hear them talking and contributing to the discussion, unless they are invited to do so. Even if they are invited, you may find just one representative who would say something.”

In the context of Fiji, studies have shown how the challenges posed by a patriarchal system have resulted in gendered impacts of climate change, therefore affecting women, men, and non-gender-conforming communities differently (Barkha, 2022).  For instance, women in Fiji are more likely to be responsible for the collection of water and firewood, meaning that their livelihoods are highly dependent on natural resources whose accessibility has become more difficult and time-consuming in the face of extreme weather events like floods and droughts (Singh P. et al., 2022).

When looking at planned relocation in Fiji through gender lenses, patriarchal norms manifest themselves, highlighting a different level of agency between women and men. Sivendra Michael explained how, when relocating, the decision-making power lies primarily with the head of the household, who is usually a man.

As for the relocation itself, the head of the household makes the decision, unless the woman is the head of the household. But to what extent does the husband listen to his wife before making the final decision? I feel for them. I feel for young girls, for women.”

2.       Gender Inclusion in Relocation Processes Falls Short of Representing the Needs of All Women

Recent studies have highlighted the need for a more gender-sensitive approach in the implementation of migration policies. A work by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction found that women and girls are often excluded from decision-making processes related to relocation, often leading to inadequate planning and support for their needs (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2021).

In the case of Fiji, PRG incorporates gender as an overarching principle of the relocation process, expressing the government’s willingness to ensure that both men and women are meaningfully engaged and participate in the decision-making, planning, and implementation phases (Fiji Government, 2018). Sivendra Michael raised some concerns about the practical implications of this proposition. When asked about gender inclusion in the way it is now framed in the context of PRG, he answered:

Yes, some change is happening over time. Yes, women are getting more empowered to speak up for their voices. However, in processes as such, unless a woman is in a leadership decision-making role, her perspective is not well factored in.”

During our exchange, Michael further commented on this, providing some information about the role of what he defined as “the Women’s Group”, namely the only relevant stakeholders representing females during the consultative process before any relocation is agreed upon:

At the first level, during the consultation process, women are not so well consulted. The government might argue that women groups in the community can build and generate consensus in those groups. However, the critical question would then be: to what extent does the Women’s Group represent all women’s voices? We cannot limit ourselves to one voice, we need to think of a collective voice. Yet, if a Women’s Group is the only political place where such a consensus might be built, then we need an active participation of a wider audience of women within the community that includes young women and girls as well, and not just elderly women”.

The issue of representation was also raised by Frances Namoumou, who talked about the consequences that such underrepresentation of women’s needs had on past relocation decisions regarding infrastructures, e.g., the implementation of a new drainage system and reassembling of house facilities and furniture. When asked about challenges faced by some communities during the relocation phase, she gave the example of Vunidogoloa, the first village to be relocated in 2012 (Tronquet, 2015).

In my work, I realized our main goal is to make sure that what happened in Vunidogoloa will not happen again, especially in terms of infrastructure. While the Fijian government continues to say that it was a successful project, I would say it was not. The drainage system was lacking, kitchens were not headed onto the houses that were built. Yes, women were trained to install and maintain solar. But what else was taken into consideration in terms of what the women wanted?

Although there have been efforts to address gender dimensions of planned relocation in Fiji, including through the development of policies and programs aimed at promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in the context of climate change, respondents claimed that gender-sensitive considerations should be further integrated into all aspects of planned relocation to ensure women are fully able to participate in the decision-making process and that their needs are met. As Namoumou suggested:

A lot of the thinking has to be done to make sure that there is not just the voice of one powerful woman to be heard.”

3.       Planned Relocation Acts as a Vulnerability Multiplier for Fijian Women

Based on our respondents’ contributions, women are found to be more vulnerable to planned relocation due to their roles in caregiving, food production, and household management. As women in Fiji are often responsible for managing households and caring for children and the elderly, relocating might be challenging, thus influencing their willingness to leave home (Bertana & Blanton, 2022). As mentioned before, Fijian women may also experience additional vulnerabilities to relocation due to their lower levels of access to education, employment, and decision-making power, which can limit their ability to participate in and benefit from relocation efforts (Mearns & Norton, 2010). Furthermore, IUCN found that gender-based violence and other forms of discrimination continue to be major barriers to safe and successful relocation for many women, particularly those from marginalized communities (IUCN, 2020). The latter point is consistent with what Frances Namoumou reported, claiming that safety was by far the biggest challenge women had to face during the post-relocation phase. When asked to expand on that, she stated:

In many cases, women talked with me about how unsafe they would feel when going back to the old site, which is normally around 2km away. Occasionally, women go back to clean up the burial site, or to catch the fish in the ocean. As this requires women to walk longer distances than they were used to before relocating, they do not feel safe. Now, they always go in pairs or small groups, so that they feel they are protecting each other. There is a huge issue of security.”

Although gender-based violence is one of the most relevant factors, the respondent also referred to health issues as an example of a recurrent vulnerability women would normally face after being relocated, mostly concerning changes in eating habits.

After communities were relocated, we also noticed an increasing number of NCD cases, non-communicable diseases. The change in dietary habits has caused a lot of diabetes cases, with elderly women being the most affected.”

That said, drawing on what recent literature has shown, the health impacts of planned relocation are still poorly understood, with some villagers giving mention to unanticipated risks to health (e.g., increased consumption of packaged goods and alcohol) and others mentioning improved access to drinking water, food, and sanitation (McMichael & Powel, 2021).

Beyond security and health issues, the last element of vulnerability Frances Namoumou talked about was the negative impact that planned relocation had on women’s psychological well-being, in line with what previous research shed light on (Stone et al., 2022). First, she explained how different the perception of mental health between men and women might be in Fiji:

There is not enough language that describes mental health. Mental health can be linked to something, but women are unable to tell you if they suffer from depression or anxiety. Men are used to sitting around a table and talking about the issue; for women, that space is not available: they carry on families, they do not look after their health; therefore, they do not realize when it becomes a mental health issue.”

Then, she commented on how religion also plays a role in the way people deal with psychological stress:

It is also about religion: Christianity tells us to pray about everything, to hold on, but I guess that’s an area that has not been highlighted enough in the relocation work.”

Building on this, Frances Namoumou pointed out how planned relocation can oftentimes trigger self-blaming thoughts in women. As their traditional culture assigns them the role of defenders of the land, they tend to experience relocation as a personal failure.

You get to see people talking about a sense of guilt and shame. Most women would say: “I can hear the sound of the waves in my sleep, and it bothers me; it is a sign that we left something behind that we were supposed to protect.” You see, they often feel like they have not done their part. Having to relocate makes the reconciliation with land extremely difficult.”

According to our respondents, safety, health issues, and psychological well-being were the main drivers of women’s vulnerabilities in the post-relocation phase. However, it should be noted that those vulnerabilities highly depend on pre-existing conditions, mainly traceable to cultural and societal factors (McAdam, 2012). As is mostly the case when it comes to climate change and its effects, planned relocation thus emerges as a vulnerability multiplier for Fijian women.

Discussion and Limitations

Fiji is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and flooding are endangering the livelihoods of many communities, oftentimes forcing them to seek resettlement opportunities. Despite being seen as an option of last resort, planned relocation has been increasingly looked at as a concrete response to disaster risk reduction, and has successfully been incorporated into national adaptation plans. The establishment of ad hoc guidelines and the recent publication of the Standard Operating Procedures show continuous government efforts to provide the country with a long-term strategy to prepare for future relocations and ensure they would follow a human-centered approach. Although gender mainstreaming is a major component of the present framework, past relocation experiences make experts in the field skeptical about the efficacy of such policies. While expressing some reservations about the level of inclusivity and representativeness of people’s needs across different stages of the relocation process, respondents claimed that the implementation of current strategies fails to fully address the diverse needs and concerns of all women in Fiji, particularly young girls, indigenous and marginalized women. Interviews revealed that patriarchal dynamics are still entrenched in Fijian culture, with traditional gender roles embodying the pillars of the societal structure and hampering women’s political representation. This interferes with the planned relocation process, which is found to amplify the magnitude of gendered pre-existing vulnerabilities in terms of personal safety, health issues, and mental well-being.

Having said that, the findings of the study should be interpreted with caution, as they may not fully represent the experiences of women, men, and other gender minorities in Fiji. First, the sample size was relatively small, inevitably preventing the generalization of the results to the wider population of Fiji. Second, none of the respondents was directly involved in the relocation process but rather worked together with relocated communities and simply reported the experiences of those they provided assistance. As for the scope of the research, although the study design aimed at investigating possible gender dynamics across different stages of the relocation process, its findings are partially distorted by the fact that the words gender and women were used interchangeably by both participants. While only the word gender was occasionally included in the questions to avoid biased results, the two respondents only referred to females’ experiences and vulnerabilities. At the same time, this is consistent with the persistence of patriarchal structures in Fiji, where even at the institutional level gender is mostly conflated with women, resulting in a lack of disaggregated gender data and contributing to the essentialization of women, seen as part of a monolithic and universal category. Not only does using gender and women as synonyms obscure the fact they have diverse experiences, needs, desires, and ambitions (Gioli & Milan, 2018), but also leads to a performative rather than an intentional representation of their voices during consultative processes, e.g., planned relocation. Despite these shortcomings, the study provides valuable insights into the impact of traditional gender roles on the way planned relocation is perceived and experienced in Fiji while highlighting the need for further research to address the complexities of gender dynamics in the country, particularly regarding climate-induced mobilities.


About the author: Emma Cabascia is a Master student of Environmental Policy at Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs, where she is specialising in climate-induced mobility, climate governance, and gender studies. Previously, she completed a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations, with a thesis focusing on the existing regulatory framework governing climate-induced displacement. She currently holds a position as a Project Officer and Communication Intern at the HUGO Observatory, where she is contributing to the implementation of the Communication and Dissemination Plan within the framework of the HABITABLE project.


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