Climate change in the Pacific: The women steadying the ship

University of Waikato has found that women will play a central role in how resilient Tonga and Samoa will be to the impacts of climate change.

08 Mar 2024

New research by the University of Waikato has found that women will play a central role in how resilient Tonga and Samoa will be to the impacts of climate change.

The research, commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), is charged with providing a picture of the future of climate change mobility – including how many people may move within their country or overseas, how and where they may move and how they may be impacted. In the process, the research has revealed how the lives of women in Tonga and Samoa have already changed because of existing mobility and what it could mean for the future resilience of the Pacific to climate change.

University of Waikato research lead Lora Vaioleti says it’s critical we understand what is happening in the Pacific and what issues already exist to understand what the future of climate change mobility could look like and its impacts.

“While New Zealand has benefited from having Pacific peoples coming to work here on seasonal programmes, we know it has changed the social fabric in places like Tonga and Samoa. As young men in particular travel overseas for long periods of time, the women who remain behind must bear heavier responsibilities in the home and community, including facing the worsening impacts of climate change.”

The research has engaged over 800 people so far, including female leaders of villages, academia, business and government, with many saying women are taking on new responsibilities such as physical work in the plantations, technical work in electrical infrastructure, captaining ferries and large container ships, and setting up new disaster preparedness groups - all roles that men traditionally carried out. In addition, women continue to fulfil their more traditional roles, taking care of the well-being of the extended family, practising and passing on cultural knowledge and running village development programs through women’s committees.

While a lot of women acknowledged that these changes have offered a new level of economic resilience for some, there has been a deep emotional and spiritual toll on individual women.

“With many men overseas for extended periods we are told that family break ups are more and more common and mothers with young children are being left without any financial or social support. Tragic stories of these women’s struggles were shared with us, including reports of some taking their lives as a result. As the CEO of the Ministry for Women, Community and Social Development in Samoa said, ‘no one is supporting our women,’”  says Ms Vaioleti.

The research team, Ms Vaioleti says, believes that countries like New Zealand need to better recognise the negative impacts of seasonal work programmes in the Pacific and how that will affect the future resilience of communities.

“Climate change will further strain an already tested Pacific population. It will accentuate existing social, cultural and economic challenges and create further impetus for mobility. We need to do more to address the harm already caused and invest in those who are working overtime to keep the ship steady in places like Tonga and Samoa – the women.”

This research is part of a wider study that seeks to understand the future of climate change mobility in the Pacific. The University of Waikato research team, including Professor Sandy Morrison, Dr Timote Vaioleti and Lora Vaioleti, are leading research and engagement in Tonga and Samoa, with several research outputs already completed and more to be released in the coming months.

The wider study also includes researchers from the University of Auckland and Mana Pacific Consulting.

A research product dedicated to women and mobility will be available publicly in late May 2024.

Women's workshop on climate change mobility

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