Honorable Speaker,
It is an honor to address this august house regarding the 2021-2022 budget. The total allocation to the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation for the upcoming fiscal year is $145 million, which is a decrease of 9.21% from last year. I must ensure to explain in my statement today how my Ministry will work within the allocated budget, ensuring that service to the most vulnerable continues efficiently.

But before I do that, I wish to thank each and every frontline worker who is at battle since the second wave of COVID in Fiji, for every Fijian. The service and sacrifices of these frontline workers are invaluable, and so is the support of their families. I also wish to extend my sincere condolences to the families that have lost loved ones to the coronavirus.

Honorable Speaker,
We know that the death toll due to COVID19 is increasing with the spread of the disease over the past three months – what we also know is that a good majority of those who passed away were unvaccinated. Therefore, I take this opportunity to ask our fellow Fijians to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Government has even established vaccination drive-thru venues and arrangements to enhance accessibility for vaccinations to all Fijians. It is our duty as Fijians to get vaccinated not only for ourselves but also for our loved ones and for the sustainability of our future as a nation.
Honorable Speaker,
The virus is not only claiming lives but is increasing human suffering and upending people’s lives for the long run. Governments across the world are facing a double challenge: they have to contain the health pandemic while responding to its economic and social effects – Fiji is no different. Having said that, I congratulate and thank the Hon. AG and Minister for Economy and his team for giving us the 2021/2022 budget which is aimed at doing just what is demanded by ‘COVID times’ – balancing both the health and inevitable socio-economic crisis we are faced with.

COVID19 is a human, economic and social crisis that is now attacking our own country to its core. This means, for the Fijian Government, which has pledged to leave no one behind in alignment to our commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, the need to promote social inclusion, reduce inequalities and alleviate poverty remains paramount and the 2021/2022 budget is exemplary of the political will of the Fijian Government to do just that.
The COVID-19 outbreak affects all segments of the population and is particularly detrimental to members of those social groups in the most vulnerable situations. Evidence indicates that the socio- economic impacts of the virus are being borne disproportionately by women and vulnerable groups including the poor. Therefore, the priority for my Ministry now is to ensure that the indirect implications of COVID are also managed, particularly in relation to its implications on our clientele. Our aim is to ensure that our national social protection system continues to be operated efficiently in serving those eligible beneficiaries.  I am happy that even at a time when the economy is not in its best position, this Government is able to allocate sufficient money to ensure the continuity of social protection allowances to current beneficiaries.

Honorable Speaker,
The Fijian Government has had to take unprecedented actions to respond to the health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic so far. Crisis in Fiji is nothing new, with natural disasters being a frequent kind – and in every crisis, some people are affected more than others. The people hardest hit have often been individuals and families already struggling before the crisis, which has highlighted the significant pre-existing inequalities. However, COVID-19 has also been a huge blow to those who were able to make ends meet before the pandemic. This budget further targets everyone who has been impacted in the best possible way for some relief – all of which fall into the larger social protection system of the country – and is not restricted to social welfare beneficiaries alone.

Honorable Speaker,
In responding to the needs arising due to the severe implications of the pandemic, it has been recognized that Social Protection indeed has a fundamental role to play in addressing the social, economic and health scopes of the pandemic. Through this budget the Fijian Government proves that it supports the idea that social protection needs to be an integral component of our national economic recovery plan and as a component of fiscal stimulus that can boost collective demand and support the economy to bounce back.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific has recently made a proposal for member countries to widen social protection by spending 2 to 6 per cent of GDPs in order to lift people out of poverty and enhance resilience against future pandemics. In the past year’s and in the new budget, government allocation to social welfare programs alone in Fiji make up 1.4% of the GDP and over 4% of the entire Government budget for both years. This is aside from other Government funded assistance that forms a nationwide social protection network in its entirety such as unemployment benefits, disability/elderly care (through grants to NGOs for example), healthcare and so on. The 200 million dollars allocated for unemployment benefits together with the allocation to my ministry easily crosses the recommended allocation to expand social protection systems by ESCAP – so it is safe to say that government is doing its best to align itself to international standards when it comes to widening social protection.

It is a known fact that by protecting individuals and families in need, social protection can help address the health, social and economic dimensions of the current crisis, and all future crises. The actions of governments across the world regarding social protection have so far been unprecedented – and temporary social protection measures are being rolled out to accommodate the needs of those who do not typically fall into the Social Protection policies of governments. We have done the same and so far, temporary social protection measures have played a prominent role in catering to the people in immediate need of such assistances. The partnership between the Fiji National Provident Fund and the Fijian Government to roll out relief packages to assist its members, different types of cash top ups to those who did not fall into the above category living within containment zones and partnerships with bilateral and multilateral partners to provide top up assistance to certain groups of welfare recipients are temporary social protection measures that the Fijian Government adopted and I am pleased that the Fijian Government had done this strategically enough in the past fiscal year to be able to continue with such initiatives based on the demand of the situation in this fiscal year.

In fact it is because of the strategic and careful management of funds that in the new fiscal year, Government has the ability to introduce more assistance initiatives – imagine doing that in a time when the national economy is suffering its biggest blow – it takes more than talk to do that!

Honorable Speaker,
Speaking of new assistance programs, I must particularly commend the Hon. AG for announcing government paid stall fees for market vendors and free sanitary pads for female students. As a nation keen to achieve gender equality aligned to its international obligations and national policy commitments – these two programs are especially welcome.

A COVID 19 Response Gender Working group formed by my Ministry undertook a rapid gender analysis with multiple development stakeholders that included the UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office. The analysis found that 40 per cent of rural women in Fiji work as farmers or as farm labourers. The Working Group’s report, Gendered Impacts of COVID 19 on Women in Fiji noted that most rural women farmers are between 40 and 65 years, and that women earn 25 per cent less than their male counterparts. The report also noted that for 77 per cent of those in retail, vending in markets was their sole source of income – and the savings that they will make from not having to pay stall fees for the whole year will indeed be of great help to them.

Also, we can proudly say that we have followed in the footsteps of some of the most developed economies like New Zealand and Scotland to address what we call ‘period poverty’. Gender inequality, extreme poverty, humanitarian crises and harmful traditions can all turn menstruation into a time of deprivation and stigma, which can undermine a female’s enjoyment of fundamental human rights like education and human dignity. This is an excellent initiative to begin mitigating period poverty in Fiji and it couldn’t have come at a better time.  So I do not understand why a supposed gender equality champion and former director for women in Government like Hon. Salote Radrodro would want to attack such an initiative that contributes directly to the empowerment of girls.

Honorable Speaker,
This government finds opportunities to improve in every situation and a good example of this how we had to recognize, and sought to fill significant coverage gaps in our social protection systems over the past year – and this was when we developed Fiji’s first ever targeted Social Assistance Policy and this will be our guide for the new fiscal year and the years ahead as we work with the budgets allocated to my Ministry for social welfare programs.

Like always, the largest portion of the Ministry’s total budget allocation in the new fiscal year is for the administration of the nation’s core Social Protection Programs. The clientele benefitting from these programs include children, the disadvantaged, persons with disabilities and the elderly.

The Hon. Salote Radrodro has picked on the decrease in the social protection budget for the Ministry to support her assertion that it shows a case of misplaced priority.  Last year, the Ministry carried out for the first time a recertification exercise to clean and update our list of beneficiaries.  For that exercise alone over 7000 beneficiaries from different programs were removed from the beneficiary list.  To complement that, the Ministry’s efforts in regularly reviewing case files to ensure that only eligible beneficiaries are actually receiving allowances has had an impact as well.  I assure social welfare beneficiaries that their entitlements will not be affected in this new budget.  The Hon. Radrodro can rest assured that the decrease in the Ministry’s budget is going towards other government programs that have the same aim to leave no one behind during these trying times. 

Honorable Speaker,
The Poverty Benefit Scheme, that currently assists over 25,000 households has been allocated $36m for the new fiscal year; whereas the Care and Protection Allowance Program that currently assists over 8000  households has been allocated $11.3m. The allowances per household will depend largely on the number of dependents and case by case assessments with the $50.00 food voucher remaining the same and complementary to the cash allowances.

Honorable Speaker,
The budget allocation to the Social Pension Scheme (SPS) in the new fiscal year is $55.3m and those who qualify for this are older persons who never in their lives received any superannuation in any form. Currently there are over 45,000 recipients under this program. The introduction of the Social Pension Scheme in 2013 and the progressive reduction of the eligibility age from 70 to 65yrs, and the increase of the allowance from $30 per month to $50 in the past years, and $100 since commitment to the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA). This commitment is again reflected in the increased budget allocation for the National Council of Older Persons (NCOP) and the funding support given to the three state owned Homes for the elderly and also towards its much needed upgrade which is currently underway.

Honorable Speaker,
More than 52,000 senior citizens and people living with disabilities will also continue to benefit from government’s free Bus fare scheme and we acknowledge the receipt of $5m towards the administration of this cost. The Expanded Food Voucher (EFV) for Rural Pregnant Mothers will be maintained in this new budget year with the allocation of $1.02m in the new fiscal year.
We also continue to administer the Disability Allowance with an allocated budget of $10.78m, which is an increase of $1.43m from the current fiscal year. This program currently supports over 8,000 beneficiaries.  This again, indicates government’s commitment in ensuring that the rights of every individual, including persons with disabilities as enshrined in the Constitution is addressed.

Honorable Speaker,
With such a complex social protection net covering over 80k Fijians across our 110 inhabited islands, it is critical that the platform and the rules and procedures around deployment of the programs is resilient and adaptable to the needs of our clients at any given time. Keeping this in mind, we are happy to have received an allocation of $10,000 for the review of the social protection program systems and processes. We are aiming to address any possible gaps in the administration of all these social protection programs to ensure accurate and timely payments, avoidance of over payments and double dipping, improvement of Standard Operating Procedures and facilitation of timely reviews for graduation and termination of allowances as necessary. We will also be working on the upgrade of the Social Welfare Management Information System during this time.  This sum will be complemented by the generous grant of the Australian Government towards the same cause.
Honorable Speaker,
The Ministry has continued to fully operate the two toll free helplines, namely the Child helpline 1325 administered by Medical Services Pacific and the Domestic Violence Helpline 1560 administered by the Fiji Women’s Crisis Center during the COVID lockdown periods in Fiji. We are grateful that both helplines have been allocated their own budget respectively to continue operations. These helplines have become even more critical during the Covid pandemic given the hike in the rate of violence against women and children. With the increased incidence of women and children staying at home during this time it is critical that such accessible avenues for advice and assistance is available.

To this end I would also like to acknowledge our private, non-government and international development partners who provide as much support as possible in a more targeted and effective manner to address the immediate needs of those Fijians who fall under the overarching mandate of the Ministry.

Honorable Speaker,
The Ministry’s role through the Department of Social Welfare is not limited to government’s social welfare schemes and child protection programs; it also entails the rehabilitation of juveniles in conflict with the law. The budget allocation for the running of the institution will enable the Ministry to focus in providing rehabilitation programs that will empower these juveniles and prepare them to be productive members in society.

Honorable Speaker,
As of 2016, the Ministry has been given the added responsibility of administering the 3 State Homes for the Older Persons. Upon taking over, the Ministry had seen the urgent need for the renovation and upgrading of these Homes and in the last fiscal year we were allocated funds to do just that. Much work in the whole process has been carried out and in the new fiscal year we have been allocated $1.79m to continue with the renovations at the Labasa GAH with an additional $250,000 for furniture. This upgrade will give the residents in these Homes are more dignified and conducive environment that they can enjoy.

Honorable Speaker,
My ministry is satisfied with the allocations we have got towards the Gender Equality and Empowerment program based with the Department of Women for the new fiscal year. The 2020-2021 budgets reflects the continued effort of the Fijian Government to accelerate Fiji’s commitments to progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 3, “Promoting Gender Equality and Women Empowerment”. Working towards Gender Equality and empowerment of women needs collaborative effort and the Government intends to strengthen the efforts in a coordinated manner working with its stakeholders drawn from government, non-government organization, donor parthers, corporate organizations and UN agencies.

Honorable Speaker,
The 2021-2022 budget reaffirms this Government’s commitment to the empowerment of women with the allocation of $150,000 for Department of Women to implement its core programs under the Women’s Plan of Action. This is a significant reduction from the last fiscal year but the reduction is based on the low utilization rate which was mainly due to the postponement of programmes because of TC Yasa and TC Ana and the pandemic. For the next 4 years, the key thematic areas that the National Women’s Machinery will be focusing on are:
Ending violence against all women and girls;
Prompting Women’s Economic Empowerment;
Improving protection from and resilience to climate change and disasters for all women and girls.

These priorities are complemented with four cross-cutting areas, including (i) Gender Transformative Institutional Capacity Development, (ii) Women and Girls Leadership, (iii) Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights and (iv) Gender Statistics.
Major initiatives have secured donor funding for its design, development and implementation and the WPA will support this mainly for the participation of the NWM and coordination and advocacy role of the Department.

An additional $100,000 has been allocated for NGO Grants and $400,000 for Women Institutions. Also, an allocation of $25,000 to the Fiji Women’s Federation will see a robust work towards strengthening its role in safeguarding women’s human rights and interest. The Barefoot College Construction has been allocated $2.8m for the continuation and completion of the project.

The Ministry is committed to ensuring that our women are treated as equals in all aspects of our socioeconomic development and are able to participate fully and equally in all aspects of our national life. The voices of our women must be heard, and they must be visible at all areas of development. To leave no one behind, is to provide a space where women’s voice is heard, where their issues are considered and that their contribution is acknowledged. This is the principle on which the government has allocated budget to towards the development of our Fijian women – but we must also not forget that gender is a cross cutting issue and the Fijian Government believes in a whole of Government approach to achieve gender equality.

Therefore, reduced allocations to gender programs within my ministry does not mean there is a lack of political will – it is a means to place emphasis on gender responsive budgeting across government. On that note I congratulate the Hon. Minister for Agriculture and his team for a very comprehensive Agriculture census that has very astutely put women in Agriculture on the map by having a specific chapter on Gender and by having sex-desegregated data on every agricultural activity that was surveyed. I have no doubt that the Ministry of Agriculture will in the years ahead fully utilize the data they have collected to improve the position of women in agriculture in Fiji through targeted and impactful initiatives.  I would also like to congratulate the Minister of Economy and his Gender-enlightened team on what I know to be a precedent in laying the foundation for gender-responsive budgeting across of Government in years to come.  The continuation of initiatives like the Institutional Capacity Development will indeed aid the success of gender responsive budgeting across government.  
Honorable Speaker,
To conclude, the momentum created by the response to the pandemic and may enable progress on these issues in the near future and it is change that will go far and beyond the COVID crisis and the new budget will support that. Due to the unique characteristics of the pandemic, social protection has also broken new ground, particularly in relation to service delivery and innovations, especially in the area of social protection are going to have long-term effects on the sector. Overall, despite the economic downfall, this budget considers the needs of all actors of the Fijian society and for this very reason, I support the proposed 2021/2022 budget.

I thank you.