Public Finances and Gender: What a trip to Lautoka taught us

March 24, 2021

Marine Destrez, PFM Project Manager and Emeline Ilolahia, PIANGO Executive Director and one of the Pacific Public Finance engagement advocate (Photo: UNDP/Marine Destrez)

Lautoka, situated in the Western part of Viti Levu, is the second largest city in Fiji. This is also the second stop for the budget consultation workshop organized by the Fiji Council of Social Services, which involved the participation of men and women working with communities on a daily basis. This budget consultation process is supported by UNDP and the EU. We used the International Women’s Day as an opportunity to travel to Lautoka as we reflected on the relevance of Public Finance Management for gender mainstreaming and women empowerment. We asked ourselves four questions:

Are women’s needs and specific context reflected in national budgets?

We used the first Fiji Citizen Budget Guide to look into the budget figures. According to the Guide, Fiji has a Ministry for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation which receives a share of the national budget. Apart from this, the Budget had little to tell us about the specific impact it will have on women (or men, children and specific interest groups).

One way government can make budgets reflect development priorities is gender responsive budgeting. Several governments in the Pacific are discussing this option and some have even taken steps to assess the existing gender disaggregated data and readiness of their administration. You can read more about their initiatives here. Another proposal which was put on the table at the UNDP-PFTAC Regional Budget Documentation workshop in 2019 is to invite Ministries of Women and representative of marginalized groups to sit at the table with decision-makers when reviewing major new initiatives to be included in the budget.

Searching for gendered data and information in the budget document (Photo: UNDP)

Analysing the different impact of COVID-19 on various sub-groups including men, women and children (Photo: UNDP)

Do COVID-19 and cyclones recovery budget need to look at how men, women and children are impacted differently?

The Pacific has remained sheltered from the toll taken by the pandemic worldwide. The closure of borders has however come at enormous socio-economic costs for Pacific populations. Representatives from the Nadi area, the country’s tourism hub, shared sobering stories of entire communities losing sources of revenue with hotels remaining shut. Children have been withdrawn from schools as families cannot afford to provide lunch. A majority of men have been impacted by job losses from the formal sector, which in turn has had a devastating impact on family and community ties and relationships. Women are disproportionately suffering from the rippling effects of the economic crisis in the informal sector and at home.

One key take-away is that no one solution can fit all. One recommendation from the participants includes the need to design budget submissions and solutions tailored to each group of society.

What can civil society do to encourage public finance to be more inclusive?

We reviewed the budget submission we have been drafting in the past week. Some of the proposals put forward by the communities would predominantly benefit women, others could make a major difference to women’s life if implemented carefully. One example is the investment requested by some communities in street lightning: priority could be given to neighborhoods and streets used by families and women in their daily activities to ensure they feel safe and comfortable accessing essential services.

Our major lesson learnt here is that civil society needs to walk the talk as well, as work to provide government with the relevant data and information to inform the implementation of their requests and proposals. When submitting requests to the government, CSO could include evidence about the impact of the current situation on men, women and children specifically and demonstrate with the information they collect on a daily basis the impact their submission will have on women as well as other community groups.

Identifying role models for women in public Finance management (Photo: UNDP)

What are the women we would like to celebrate from the Public Finance Management field?

Our group came up with numerous people they wanted to recognize and celebrate in the Public Finance management space.. These included women working in the Auditor General’s office, as lawyers, entrepreneurs and activists. We would like to take that space to recognise three of the powerful people from the room we were sitting in:

Ruth Atu is the only female Provincial Administrator of Fiji. She started her career in the Public Service Commission before moving on to Rotuma, Labasa, Nadroga and Lautoka where she worked as a District Officer. She was then appointed Provincial Administrator in Lautoka in January 2019.

Vani Catanasiga is the Executive Director of the Fiji Council of Social Services. She is the one to thank for bringing together Divisional Commissioners and community representatives to discuss budget allocations. In the span of her 20 year career, she’s worked as a civil servant, won awards as a journalist and coordinated youth, regional and community networks.

Emeline Ilolahia is the Executive Director of the Pacific Association of Non-Governmental Organisations. Upon taking this new position in 2019, she decided Public Finance was just the sort of topics civil society from across the Pacific should engage more in and be less afraid of. She has been working tirelessly since to make budget information more accessible notably by publishing Citizen Budget Guides in five countries. For this, she relied on the network of NGOs and counterparts she has been building first as a Tongan sustainable development actor and then as a regional Pacific voice.

Our next stop is Savusavu, where we hope to continue to challenge the world of Public Finance to ensure that is able to provide more opportunities for women. For this, we need women to continue taking more and more responsibilities in the Public Finance sectors and for publicly funded initiatives to clearly be linked to women empowerment and gender equality.