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Harnessing remittances to build climate resilience: women's role in the Pacific

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By Veronica Corno, Jale Samuwai

· 9 min read

The Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are highly vulnerable to climate change, with increased occurrences of extreme disasters like droughts and tropical cyclones. These events hinder their development trajectory, with climate change impacts most strongly felt at the community level. Strengthening communities as foundational blocks of a country’s resilience framework involves enhancing their capacity to absorb, adapt, and respond to anticipated shocks and risks.

Gender equality and climate change are closely intertwined, and addressing both issues concurrently presents numerous opportunities for development progress. For our RemitResilience project, BASE and Oxfam in the Pacific, supported by Convergence, conducted a gender analysis. The aim was to create a finance mechanism that allows migrant workers from PICs in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Australia to invest remittances in sustainable and climate-resilient infrastructure in their home countries of Fiji, Tonga, and Vanuatu. The analysis focused on gender inequalities, women’s resilience barriers, and remittance behaviours to ensure financial inclusivity. Primary data was gathered through consultations with communities and stakeholders, supported by secondary data from academic and grey literature.

Women as remitters

The Pacific region has a large diaspora residing in Aotearoa, Australia, and the United States due to significant migration flows. Emerging labour opportunities offer exciting prospects for seasonal work in horticulture, viticulture, hospitality, aged care, and fisheries. However, according to a 2019 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women face limited access to seasonal labour mobility opportunities. The report reveals that women constituted only 11 percent of workers participating in these labour schemes during 2013-2014. A 2017 study conducted by the World Bank further showed that women who took part in these labour schemes earned slightly less than men, despite remitting more money back to their families. 

Cultural norms and perceived vulnerabilities related to safety and well-being have been identified as potential factors contributing to women’s low earning capacity. Employer preferences and the implicit designation of certain jobs as ‘masculine’ impeded women’s engagement in specific types of work. Nevertheless, the access granted to women in labour programs and their ability to contribute to their families by working abroad are beginning to change and shift gender stereotypes. 

On a global scale, women migrants contribute approximately the same amount of remittances as their male counterpartsResearch shows that despite earning less, women allocate a higher proportion of their income to remittances. Women also demonstrate more regular and sustained remittance-sending patterns, making their financial contributions more reliable. Studies conducted across countries attribute such trends to gender socialisation from a young age that shapes women’s understanding of household needs and cultivates a greater willingness to make sacrifices when conflicts arise between their own needs and those of their children and family members. The International Organisation for Migration finds that women send smaller sums more frequently, resulting in higher transfer fees.

Aligned with the global patterns, migrant and diaspora workers from the Pacific, particularly women, do not usually earn high incomes while working abroad in countries like Aotearoa and Australia. During stakeholder consultations, female workers abroad reported facing higher social pressures to remit a portion of their earnings back to their families in the Pacific. Among Tongans in Auckland, men were more likely to not send remittances. Although men sent higher average sums than women, women remitted 15 percent of their net incomes, while men remitted 11 percent.

Women as the remittance-recipients

Figure 1. RemitResilience team member, George Koran, with the participants of the women community consultation group in Paunagisu, Vanuatu

photo of RemitResilience team member, George Koran, with the participants of the women community consultation group in Paunagisu, Vanuatu.Source: BASE

Remittances play a crucial role in improving the economic situation of recipients and, in some cases, serve as the primary or sole source of income. These remittances contribute to recipients’ development and economic empowerment, who can then decide how the funds are spent. Increasing a woman’s income significantly impacts poverty reduction and economic growth. When women have more control over remittance spending, the funds are often allocated towards meeting household members’ nutritional, educational, and healthcare needs, particularly children. Additionally, women reinvest 90 percent of their income into their families, compared to men, who reinvest only 30 to 40 percent.

At the municipal and provincial levels, remittances are often utilised to build public infrastructure such as libraries, water supply systems, or emergency shelters in response to natural hazards. These measures fill gaps where government support is lacking. Women are the most affected by the lack of community infrastructure and services and benefit most from community projects. However, the IOM reports that they are often excluded from community associations where such project decisions are made.

In Fiji, women are more likely to receive remittances than men, with 28 percent and 19 percent, respectively. A slightly higher proportion of urban women (30 percent) receive remittances than their rural counterparts (25 percent). While women are more likely to receive remittances, men tend to receive larger amounts. Men primarily receive remittances from immediate family members such as siblings, parents, or children, whereas women receive remittances from extended relatives like aunts, uncles, nieces, and sometimes their siblings. Our community consultations in Fiji revealed that the decision-making power on how remittances are spent chiefly rests with the recipients, regardless of gender.

In Tonga, 90 percent of adults receive some form of remittance within a year as its diaspora accounts for 70 percent of the country’s total population. Community consultations indicated that the decision-making on how remittances are spent lies almost entirely with the recipients, regardless of gender. However, this dynamic might change when the remitter is part of a seasonal worker program as the remitter, typically a man, exercises control over how the money gets spent.

In Vanuatu, the number of permanent migrants and diaspora to Aotearoa and Australia is relatively low compared to other PICs. However, Vanuatu actively participates in seasonal worker programs. According to the World Bank, Ni-Vanuatu seasonal workers earn an average of USD 13,610 during their six-month program, with female seasonal workers earning nearly 10 percent less than their male counterparts. Some of their earnings are used for pre-departure expenses and living costs in Australia, while the remaining approximate amount of USD 6,500 is saved. A smaller portion of their earnings is sent to their families through formal remittance channels. Community consultations have revealed that decision-making power regarding the allocation of remittances primarily lies with the senders, with men exerting stronger control as remittance senders and major participants in seasonal worker labour schemes.

Climate change and gender

Climate change disproportionately impacts women due to existing power imbalances in societies, affecting their ability to respond and cope effectively. In the Pacific, vulnerable women at the community level have a vital role in the informal sector, heavily relying on climate-sensitive sectors like agriculture, fisheries, handicrafts, and tourism. These sectors support women in fulfilling their household responsibilities and contribute significantly to the overall economy, making them highly vulnerable to climate-induced events.

Global trends reveal a stark reality: women and children are four times more likely than men to experience death or injury during disasters. Furthermore, they face intangible losses, including heightened vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence, loss or reduction of economic opportunities, and increased workload. These challenges can be illustrated after Tropical Cyclone Winston in Fiji, where women mud crab fishers encountered difficulties accessing shorelines and markets, impacting their income and credit accessibility. In rural Tonga, women depend on koloa/tapa making, which includes heritage arts and handcrafting, as a significant source of income. The income generated from these crafts has facilitated the education and employment of family members abroad. Climate change and natural disasters are negatively impacting the plants essential for producing these items, presenting significant challenges to this source of income. Similarly, in Vanuatu following Tropical Cyclone Pam, women shouldered additional unpaid responsibilities such as house repairs, water retrieval, food procurement, and family care, amounting to an estimated minimum of USD 3.7 million worth of extra unpaid work by women.

Women in the Pacific play a pivotal role in building resilience within their communities. They are indispensable contributors to food, water, well-being, and security at the community level. For instance, in Fiji, women’s intimate knowledge of food production and preservation has ensured food security even as arable land swindles due to coastal flooding and erosion. In some PICs, women have established disaster management savings groups as a self-sustaining response to delays in government assistance. Despite their contributions and knowledge, gender inequality rooted in social structures often excludes women from decision-making processes related to climate adaptation and community development.

What are women’s climate priorities for remittance allocation?

Figure 2. A woman from the village of Namena in Tailevu walks in front of her damaged house after Cyclone Winston swept through the area

PHOTO of A woman from the village of Namena in Tailevu walks in front of her damaged house after Cyclone Winston swept through the areaSource: STEVEN SAPHORE/AFP via Getty Images

The answer from the community consultations was simple and straightforward – towards building resilient infrastructure.

The use of technology in the Pacific region reflects historical gender inequalities, with women often marginalised due to differences in access to resources, knowledge, and gender norms surrounding technology. The design and implementation of technologies and infrastructure often exclude women, leading to their lack of confidence in adopting these technologies. 

Decision-making regarding technology and infrastructure, including housing design, is predominantly controlled by male counterparts, resulting in the neglect of women’s needs and priorities. In rural areas, temporary shelters are common until sufficient funds are saved for a permanent house. However, women face challenges in accessing safe shelter, especially when their houses are destroyed or damaged due to male ownership of land. Similarly, water management and sanitation systems disproportionately impact women as they bear the responsibility for domestic water usage and are more exposed to poor water and sanitation conditions, leading to waterborne diseases. Lack of access to renewable energy systems, particularly in communities not connected to the national power grid, further exacerbates women’s burden as they are the primary caregivers and household managers, limiting their opportunities for work, education, and other productive activities.

These gender disparities in technology use and infrastructure development hinder women’s empowerment and exacerbate their already burdened roles within Pacific societies. Urgent changes are needed to address these inequalities and ensure that women’s needs and priorities are integrated into the region’s technological advancements and infrastructure planning.

This article is also published on BASE. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Veronica Corno is a climate change professional with 5 years of experience working with IOs and NGOs. She currently serves as a Climate Finance Officer at the World Food Programme, focusing on driving climate finance towards initiatives that help communities adapt and build resilience to the impacts of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean. Previously, she worked at BASE (a UNEP collaborating centre) supporting the design and implementation of projects based on innovative financial instruments (including remittance-based models) in Low-Income Countries and SIDS.

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Dr. Jale Samuwai manages the Climate Finance Access Network Program at Rocky Mountain Institute, overseeing the Pacific portfolio. Previously, he advised on climate change for Pacific organizations like Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries and the World Bank Pacific Resilience Project. He also worked as a climate change advisor for Oxfam in the Pacific region.

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