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Breifni Flanagan's Fiji UNV internship experience

From island to island: My Journey as an Irish United Nations Volunteer in Fiji – Breifni Flanagan

In an unusual sunny Monday morning in Dublin, I boarded my flight, passport, and documents in hand, to the tiny island of Fiji in the South Pacific. 

As a small island, Ireland recognizes the challenges which similar islands face. As part of its Small Island Developing States (SIDS) strategy, Ireland is keen to ensure that the specific priorities and interests of SIDS such as Fiji, continue to be reflected on the world stage.

For this reason, in November 2020, I was selected as an International Youth UNV, fully funded by the Government of Ireland to work with UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office with a focus on climate action and gender equality.

Much like all of 2020, my road to Suva, Fiji was not an easy one. The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 is one of the most complex and challenging threats the world has ever faced, and traversing the globe, to perhaps the furthest place from my home in Tramore, Co. Waterford, highlighted these challenges even further.

Breifni Flanagan - UN Volunteer

Though my assignment began in late November 2020, the increasingly worrying COVID-19 situation around the world left me with no other option but to be flexible and keep an open mind. I began my assignment remotely until a planned humanitarian flight by the World Food Programme (WFP) in late January 2021 marked my journey as a UN International Youth Volunteer physically in Fiji. Three layovers, a delayed flight and lots of handwashing later, I finally reached Fiji on the 20th of January 2021.

My role as Gender and Climate Change Support Officer focuses on addressing the intersections of gender and climate change in the region and I had spent the first months of my assignment working closely on the implications of disasters on women in Fiji. However, reality of life in the Pacific soon became even clearer when Tropical Cyclone (TC) Ana hit the main island of Viti Levu midway through my 2-week quarantine period.

A category 3 cyclone, TC Ana was the third severe tropical cyclone to hit Fiji during the 2020-21 South Pacific cyclone season. Arriving in the wake of two previous severe tropical cyclones, TC Ana left behind a difficult road to recovery.

The Pacific is one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world. Small, vulnerable island states experience frequent and intense disasters, resulting in negative economic, social, and environmental consequences. Arguably the basis of these disasters, climate change has been acknowledged as the greatest threat to security and human development in the region.

Global evidence indicates that women are generally disproportionally affected by these disasters and have different and uneven levels of resilience and capacity to recover from the effects of climate change.

UN Women’s humanitarian team soon sprang into action in the wake of TC Ana, working tirelessly to support and mitigate recovery efforts across the island. The effects of climate change coupled with COVID-19 have had profound effects on the lives of women, girls and other vulnerable groups in the region throughout the past year.

As part of my role with UN Women’s humanitarian team, I have worked closely alongside my team members on programs which ensures an inclusive and gender focused approach to planning and responding to humanitarian crisis such as TC Ana and COVID-19. I am currently gaining significant experience and insights on the value of coordination with local civil society organizations and assisting humanitarian programmes and projects. With a focus on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) I monitor, track, and evaluate progress of project activities, working alongside project partners to achieve the overall programme goals.

UN Women is committed to ensuring equality between women and men as partners and beneficiaries of humanitarian action, and in the Pacific, we see firsthand the vital implications of this commitment, where persisting gender inequalities often lead to additional vulnerabilities and different impacts for women and girls when disasters strike.

The engagement of women in issues related to climate change and disaster is essential to tackling challenges within the region, as their engagement will ensure this a top priority in long-term development. As a young woman, I have always been motivated to create spaces for women to participate in decision making and take on leadership roles.

My experience as a UN Volunteer has given me the motivation to continue to champion the rights of women and girls in my future work and remember that no one should be left behind in the fight against climate change.  I am grateful to Irish Aid and UN Women for giving me the opportunity to work here in Fiji and I am very proud to have made and continue to make a small contribution to the fight for women's leadership and rights in the Pacific.