How Economic Empowerment Reduces Violence Against Pacific Women

Many women in the Pacific experience violence in markets and other workplaces. Photo: ADB
Many women in the Pacific experience violence in markets and other workplaces. Photo: ADB

By Ingrid FitzGerald, Aleta Moriarty

A safe work environment and women’s economic autonomy are drivers of growth and good development. They also protect girls and women from violence.

Violence against women and girls is a pervasive issue in Pacific Island countries, with rates among the highest in the world. A new study, which reviews existing research and data, highlights the different types of abuse Pacific women experience, and how this hampers their economic empowerment.  

The report highlights the high prevalence of economic abuse, where women are kept financially dependent through control over economic resources. A study by the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre shows that in the Marshall Islands and Fiji, around 30% of women report having their savings taken or being denied money by their partners. 

This economic control impedes women’s financial independence, directly hampering their entrepreneurial capabilities and decision-making power. It also prevents women from re-balancing the power relations within their partnership or accessing the resources necessary to escape violent relationships.  Types of violence overlap, and women who experience economic abuse at home often also experience physical and sexual violence from their intimate partner.

Our study found a strong link between violence, abuse, and women's income-generating capacity. Violence and harassment endanger women’s safety and threaten their livelihoods. An IFC survey revealed that employees in the Solomon Islands experiencing violence lost two working weeks per year. The Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre study in Fiji discovered that one in five women encountered sexual harassment at work, often while commuting between home and work. 

Women in the informal sector are also at increased risk of abuse and violence. Marketplaces, particularly open markets in urban areas, can be dangerous. A UN Women study in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, found that over half of women and girls experienced violence in marketplaces. At the same time, 22% of female vendors faced multiple instances of sexual violence within a year.

Promoting women's safety in the workplace and public spaces is critical for employees and businesses. The private sector can contribute by developing policies, training, and programs to prevent harassment and exploitation.

Our study found a strong link between violence, abuse, and women's income-generating capacity.

 Implementing policies and infrastructure that ensure women's safety is crucial for creating safe public spaces. Improved lighting, safe accommodations, and secure transportation can contribute to this goal.

Economic dependence is a significant barrier preventing women in the Pacific region from leaving abusive relationships. Economic empowerment and women’s financial autonomy can enable women to leave such situations and retain more equality in and outside of the home. A 2013 Fiji Women's Crisis Centre survey indicated that  employment and financial independence are vital pathways to help women leave violent relationships. But economic empowerment programs can also exacerbate risks if they are not correctly designed to mitigate backlash from partners. 

Collaborative interventions with the private sector have proven effective in addressing violence against women. In the Solomon Islands, 15 large companies representing 6,000 workers have committed to fostering respectful workplaces under the Waka Mere project, which is showing promising early results. 

Pacific Island governments are also making progress in some key areas. For example, Fiji has taken a leading role by ratifying International Labour Organization Convention No. 190, which recognizes the right to a violence and harassment-free work environment, including protection from gender-based violence.

This ground-breaking treaty emphasizes the importance of dignity and respect in the future of work. Pacific regional forums are discussing the convention, and regional commitment toward ratification is growing. Samoa has pledged to ratify the convention, and Tonga has implemented a sexual harassment policy for public sector workers.

Ratifying ILO Convention No. 190 can help drive significant workplace changes across the region. Compliance necessitates adopting national laws and policies, which will compel employers to implement appropriate measures.

These efforts will help cultivate a workplace culture of respect and safety, ultimately creating a more secure and respectful work environment for all.

This blog post is based on research in the publication, Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Pacific Region: A Comprehensive Analysis of Existing Research and Data