Feminist Collaboration leads to a first joint localised humanitarian response in Vanuatu

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls
Posted May 9, 2020 from Fiji


“TC Harold really made a big damage. Elderly and people with disabilities are still living in evacuation center. There are no thatch leaves to rebuild their homes. There’s a shortage of tarpaulins. While some churches leaders are urging them to return to their homes but where will they go? Nothing is left for them to survive. So many challenges faced by people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups”

As Nellie Caleb of the Vanuatu Disability Promotion & Advocacy Association (VDPA) shared her update from Santo on April 30th, the Shifting the Power Coalition Response Team was organizing to leave Port Vila to meet up with Nellie before departing together for Malo Island:

”From the plane the sight below us was horrible! It was a terrifying sight, seeing the damage caused by TC Harold on Santo and nearby islands. Trees are uprooted, houses and plantations of coconut trees crushed. As we landed we spotted small signs of life coming returning - trees growing back their leaves. But as we travelled through town we can see people are clearly traumatized, they look sad and in shock” reports Shifting the Power Coalition deployment team member Anne Pakoa

The team has acquired drinking water buckets to be delivered to affected communities in Malo one of the most affected areas to continue to respect and operationalise COVID19 hand washing policy as well as prepared documentation for the consultation:

“Excellent technical support and advice was provided by Carol Angir, ActionAid’s Program Manager for Women’s Rights and Emergencies. All documents needed for the consultation visit were printed, photocopied and packed in a sealed large plastic container” says Pakoa.

Despite logistical challenges from the bank to the airline and a misplaced carton of documents the members of the Shifting the Power Coalition – ActionAid Vanuatu (AAV), Vanuatu Young Women for Change (VYWC) and Vanuatu Disability Promotion & Advocacy Association (VDPA) are demonstrating what is possible when local women leaders are supported to mobilise:

“Malo’s main organiser on the ground who came to meet us at the airport had to spend the night with us because it was late to catch a boat back to Malo. As it was raining, windy and dark, we were advised by our Malo woman leader, not to travel as it was risky travelling across to Malo at that time of the night with the bad weather. Flora had bought some lunch and dinner for 3 and therefore we all had that for tea” says Anne as she describes the challenges on the ground including lack of affordable motel rooms “We paid 7500 vatu each for our hotel rooms” and by the end of the evening the produce brought in from Port Vila for the local communities were safely stored in the Hotel Santo cooler room.

By May 1st, the Shifting the Power Coalition deployment team – Flora Vano, Anne Pakoa, Nellie Caleb and Linda Kennie had finalised arrangements including a working partnerships with Santo Rural Water Supply and Santo Rural Health. A programme was finalized for consultation visits by Vanuatu Young Women for Change with Constitutional Members in South Malo as well as the Rapid Needs Assessment (RNA) consultation programme for women’s groups from East and West Malo were finalized. 

The RNA is a women only assessment so as to create safe space for women to talk and express themselves to inform the localised comprehensive protection response that AAV and VYWC with support from VDPA will implement.

Back in Port Vila, Sabrina Brown is leading the VYWC response to COVID19. Another collaboration planned is a joint Training of Trainers for the Woman in TokTok Tugetha (WITTT) network members Erromango, Tanna and Sunshine – which is a local disability network.

Ni-Vanuatu Women’s Voices on TC Harold Response 

“Women community leaders in East and West Malo have mobilised and organised the women in the community to participate in the Rapid Needs Assessment (RNA)” says Anne Pakoa from Vanuatu Young Women for Change.

This women-led RNA provided a safe space for women to share firsthand how TC Harold brought destruction to their communities, as well as provide recommendations for a localised response that will put protection of their safety and dignity at its centre. Working with Vanuatu Disability Promotion & Advocacy Association, also part of the Coalition, the inclusion of women with disabilities is also an important focus:

“167 Women from East and West Malo, including young women and women with disabilities actively expressed their views and shared ideas of what they were experiencing. We have been able to document their recommendations for response and recovery through consultations with key community leaders and women’s collectives in Amabelao for East Malo and Avunatari for West Malo,” says Flora Vano, ActionAid Vanuatu's Country Programme Manager. adding "This three day assessment in Malo has focused on supporting deeper contextual analysis and supporting the agency of women from affected communities in driving response efforts rather than being passive recipients of aid."

Using a Rapid Needs Assessment Tool developed by ActionAid and designed to feed into the Gender and Protection Cluster's joint-assessment has ensured the focus was on listening to women's voices and collecting first-hand information on the gendered impacts of the cyclone in East and West Malo. It also guides analysis and understanding of the protection issues that need to be addressed. 

The RNA at community level enabled the documentation of the immediate responses led by local women, as well as what they have prioritised to mitigate the impact of TC Harold on their homes and livelihoods. 

What the Women Say:

Women in East and West Malo have raised the issue of menstrual health of young women and girls and psychosocial support as urgent priorities together with Water and Sanitation Hygiene as well as the urgent need for repairs to health  infrastructure:

“According to respondents in Amapaleo community, 1500 households have been severely affected by TC Harold, leaving them with severe water issues including contaminated water sources and limited access to water. The issues of water impurities and lack of water access has implications for women and girls, women living with disabilities, children and entire families. These hardships include women walking long distances to have daily baths in the sea and increasing costs in collecting water for household use. The WASH Cluster must urgently address these issues including attending to water purification and urgent repairs of water pipes” reports Pakoa. 

Damage to infrastructure further exacerbates access to quality affordable health care as many women reported that they cannot afford to seek health services in Luganville:

“Women have also reported outbreaks of infantile diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, skin infections, intestinal worms, head lice, scabies, nausea and vomiting as well as general body pains and itchiness, respiratory problems including the common cold and flu and general arthritic problems” says Pakoa adding that while the rest of the rest of the world tackles COVID-19, the women in Malo have more urgent concerns about the potential of malaria and dengue fever as they monitor the weather patterns since TC Harold.

Safety and protection of the rights of women and girls were also a priority raised as women reported cases of domestic violence in addition to the increasing burden of care work they have to attend to: “Both TC Harold and COVID 19 crises have impacted heavily on their social and psychological well being. There are heightened stress levels which worsen when there is a lack of information on what’s happening. Single mothers, widows and people with disabilities in particular are particularly vulnerable without an income" adds Vano. 

From this initial assessment, the Shifting the Power Coalition members are recommending the need to ensure women have increased access to police intervention as well as increased resources for women leaders to lead GBV prevention and response efforts in affected communities and refer cases to support services through the Vanuatu Women’s Centre.


****The Shifting the Power Coalition project brings together the leadership of 13 women leaders from across 6 Pacific Island countries to share experiences, collaborate and amplify recommendations so that more diverse Pacific women’s voices, agency and decision making informing disaster preparedness, response and recovery at national and community level. ActionAid Australia as a women’s rights focused humanitarian organisation supports Coalition members to engage in the humanitarian system. This is extremely important for the members to be collaborating with a feminist partner to remove barriers to the participation of national, community-based and women’s rights organisations in the cluster system. This has meant there is a key opportunity to continue to build capacity of partners for meaningful engagement in humanitarian coordination, and transforming international actors’ attitudes towards working with local and national actors. As women leaders come together through the Coalition from their work in community mobilisation, peacebuilding and disability rights, ActionAid Australia, a women’s rights focused humanitarian organisation supports Coalition members to engage in the humanitarian sector****

Comments 7

Log in or register to post comments
May 10
May 10

Thank you for sharing .

Tamarack Verrall
May 10
May 10

Hi Sharon,
This is truly a blueprint of what women are capable of when taking leadership in a disaster. The Shifting the Power Coalition project has the courage, the heart and the priorities necessary. Hopefully inanition to the immediate help being made possible, this group will also have the effect of building the capacity of partners to bring help with speed, and build much more effective humanitarian coordination, internationally. Good news that ActionAid Australia, another women’s rights focused humanitarian organization, supports the Coalition members. Women consistently, compassionately and brilliantly do the heavy lifting in this world. You describe so well why women's leadership is what needs to be in place everywhere.

Anita Shrestha
May 10
May 10

Thank you for sharing

Paulina Nayra
May 14
May 14

Dear Sharon,
Great to know the work of the Shifting Power Coalition in facilitating the leadership of women in humanitarian work. Your story made me learn about the importance of conducting women focused RNA because it can surface the real and special needs of women which may not be raised if the respondents are men. Reading your stories is a learning experience for me. Stay safe out there sister. Thanks for being a prolific story teller here on World Pulse.

Sinyuy Geraldine
May 18
May 18

Dear Sharon, what a patient reporter you are? Thank you for sharing this story on how TC Harold has affected the lives of people in East and West Valo. It is sad to know that covid 19 has come to rub more salt on the wounds of those who were already affected by that terrble cyclone.Thank you for what you and the memebers of your team are doing. It is so shocking to hrar that children are now facing health problems including head lice. I never knew that such tjings as head lice exist in this world again. Oh dear, I hope you can get some detol for those women so they can bath their kids with. It will help. I pray the children don't get dehydrated from the diarrhoea. Yes, water pipe repairs are an emergency especially as water is much needed in this pandemic time. I wish you courage.

Julie Desai
Jun 10
Jun 10

Was a great insight and thanks for sharing

Jul 24
Jul 24

What a Powerful and impactful women act! Bravo and salute to you all! Last part of the last paragraphs is really well said, let's all women do our parts large or small, pave the way towards be women leaders. Thanks for your encouragement indeed.