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Fiji disaster brings better life for women

When Cyclone Winston pummelled through Fiji last year, the largest storm recorded in the southern hemisphere, Sofia Talei's taro and cassava crops were destroyed, leaving her livelihood as a farmer uncertain.

"I was so desperate. All the effort we put into it was destroyed after a few hours," Talei, 33, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But after the storm came an unexpected surprise: a wealth of financial literacy, business, and agricultural training, which led to Talei this year becoming the first female president of the main fruit and vegetable market in the Fijian capital Suva.

Women's rights campaigners say disasters can present an opportunity for countries to not only rebuild infrastructure, but also tackle gender inequality, such as helping more women get into work and finding ways to address gender violence.

"Through the leadership training, it's empowering us women to stand up and fight for women's rights," said Talei, a mother of three, standing proudly by her market stall, where she now sells coconuts and fast-growing crops like chillies, eggplants and cabbage which are better suited to unpredictable climates.

Stubborn gender stereotypes in small Pacific islands like Fiji mean women have fewer rights, such as access to services like banking, formal jobs, or even a chance to work, said Aleta Miller from UN Women in Fiji, which provides training for market stall vendors like Talei.

Such gender inequality has also led to high rates of violence against women. Two in every three women in the Pacific will experience violence - twice the global average - according to UN Women.

"What drives this violence? Fundamentally, it's harmful social norms: deeply-held attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours within society about the role of men and women," said Miller, on the sidelines of a conference run by civil rights group CIVICUS in Suva in December.

"Women hold the same values, in some cases. A woman may agree with a man that he has the right to keep her in the house and to make her report to him where ever she goes," she said.

When disaster strikes - which is becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change - women's vulnerabilities are even more exposed, said researcher Virginie Le Masson from London-based think tank Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

Some women and girls are forced to sell sex to survive, and some are raped due to the lack of shelter after disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes or floods.

"It's a combination of existing inequality and violence against women and girls, and the failure of protective systems after a disaster," said Le Masson.

"But climate change is not the reason why women have been discriminated against for the last centuries."

Le Masson said disasters can present an opportunity for women.

"This is an opportunity to change what is wrong. (After a disaster) we need everyone in the community to contribute to rebuild the economy and that's an opportunity for women to take part," she said.

Only 40 per cent of Fijian women have formal work, compared to 80 per cent of men, according to the International Women's Development Agency.

UN Women's Miller said providing skills training for women before and after a disaster is one way to help challenge engrained gender stereotypes.

"It's more than money and profit, it's also about her agency (and) having more of a voice," said Miller.

"We have many women telling us, 'I never saw myself as a business woman. This is who I am and this is my future,'" she said.