Lautoka City, usually bustling with people going about their daily routine, and streams of traffic commuting in and out of the city centre, is now almost deserted. Many businesses are shuttered, people are staying home, and silence has taken over the city following the restriction and lockdown measures imposed by the government from 20 March - 6 April, in response to the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). Behind the stillness, Prem L. Singh, a mental health specialist, listens to people’s cries of anxiety and desperation over the phone.
Empower Pacific, a civil society organization (CSO) based in Lautoka, launched a helpline to provide counselling service by phone and video soon after the city was locked down on 20 March. Prem and other counselors attend to phone calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Over 100 people a day, from across Fiji, mostly from the Lautoka area, call the helpline to seek assistance from the counsellors.
The counselors have also been able to assist patients and healthcare workers who are in isolation wards in hospitals by providing counselling through the helpline.
The counselling helpline has also received calls regarding gender-based violence and violence against women. These callers are referred to other helplines set up by the Government to address that particular issue, according to the referral mechanism established between the Government and CSOs.
The timely initiative taken by Empower Pacific to respond to the urgent psychosocial needs of the Fijian people in this time of uncertainty was made possible by the expertise and dedication of its staff. Empower Pacific has been assisting communities and workers for more than two decades through psychosocial counseling, social work, justice accompaniment services to violence survivors and awareness raising.
The partnership Empower Pacific has developed with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through the EU-funded Fiji Access to Justice Project supported this prompt action. Empower Pacific is one of four CSOs that receive grants from the project in 2019 for the provision of justice support services. The success of these grants in 2019 led to a second round of support in 2020, to accelerate efforts and leave no one behind.
The Fiji Access to Justice Project, funded by the European Union (EU) and implemented by UNDP, supports access to justice, in particular for impoverished and vulnerable groups. It does so by empowering people to access their legal rights and services, strengthening key justice institutions to deliver improved services, and strengthening the capacity of CSOs to deliver justice accompaniment services, with a special focus on supporting persons with disabilities and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
Through the helpline initiative, another partnership has been developed by the counsellors, who have started linking people in need with another CSO that provides food packages. The counsellors are able to assess the situation of their clients and whether they meet the criteria to receive the food assistance.
“Listening and talking to people while providing counselling, I feel a sense of social responsibility more than ever. I want to let people know, you are not alone, we are here for you,” Prem added.
The Project aims to contribute to the achievement of Fiji’s Sustainable Development Goals. The project focuses on Goal 5 - to achieve gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, and Goal 16 - to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.