Empower Pacific counsellors take more than 60 calls in a busy day. (Photo: Empower Pacific)

Looking into the face of her newborn baby, Nanise (not her real name) felt strength rising within herself. She recalled how she regained her confidence through the generous support provided by a civil society network when she was eight-months pregnant. She had been taking care of her six-year-old son with no stable income. She thought to take her last action before resorting to begging on the street and called the toll-free number 5626 given by a neighbour. This was the helpline for psychosocial counselling provided by a Fijian civil society organization (CSO), Empower Pacific.

When COVID-19 started reaching Fiji’s shores in early 2020, Empower Pacific made their counselling service also available by phone to reduce the risks of infections with face-to-face meetings. In May this year, in the midst of the devastating impact of COVID-19 and Delta variant hitting communities, Empower Pacific made the helpline more accessible by providing the toll-free number with funding support from the Governments of Australia and New Zealand.

The new toll-free helpline number was shown in videos and shared with as many Fijians as possible spreading through TV spots during the prime hours on two key national TV stations in Fiji. This was also disseminated through social media platforms popular in Fiji and national newspapers.

Empower Pacific counsellors take more than 60 calls in a busy day. (Photo: Empower Pacific)

The public service announcement (PSA) using the TV networks were supported by the REACH project implemented by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) supported by the Government of Japan. The REACH project coordinates service providers from the Government and CSOs and deliver to vulnerable communities to strengthen social, economic and legal rights of people.

Patrick Morgam, Empower Pacific Chief Executive Officer said that since the PSA videos on the toll-free helpline went on air, the number of calls for counselling jumped higher. “In August, we received 334 calls while in September we have received 538 calls in the first two weeks alone. We receive more than 60 calls in a busy day.”

“With anxiety, stress, and financial hardships, people called in to talk about the difficulties they are facing in their day-to-day survival.”

“We received calls from parents concerning children’s drug abuse, women suffering from domestic violence, single mothers, individuals protecting family members with disabilities from COVID-19,” said Mr. Morgam.

The phone counselling service was also extended to help persons in quarantine and isolation facilities cope with their immediate stress and anxiety in that stressful situation.

Empower Pacific counsellors and social workers coordinate with other CSOs, government and non-government service providers to assist clients. Some CSOs provided material support, the Department of Social Welfare for government support schemes and legal aid lawyers to solve legal issues.

“It was a challenge for us to organize the support materials delivered to her under the domestic border closure and closure of the non-essential services due to the COVID-19 response measures. However, we were able to assist the client in cooperation with other CSOs and partners,” he stressed the importance of coordinated support among partners.

"I would like to sincerely encourage people to come forward and dial our counselling helpline. The services are confidential, talk with a professional counsellor if they have issues and don’t know who they can talk with, we are here to listen," said Patrick Morgam, Empower Pacific Chief Executive Officer.

Within four days, Nanise was provided with baby essentials and linked to CSOs for food assistance. Since then, she has been receiving counseling programme and other support from Empower Pacific.

“Despite the challenge I face, raising two young kids by myself and putting food on the table as a solo breadwinner of my family will not go away, I feel supported and feel okay to continue, thanks to the counsellor, staff and all others who supported me,” said Nanise.

The REACH project has been serving communities in Fiji since July 2015 and piloted in Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. It has been scaled up this year with funding support provided by the Government of Japan to assist the government responses to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in Fiji and Tonga. The integrated public service delivery initiative is coordinated by the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation (MWCPA) in Fiji and the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Tonga.

Videos annoucing Empwoer Pacific’s toll free counselling helpline were shared on TV nationwide.

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