Tropical Cyclone Harold Response: Women’s Leadership at the Centre of a Localised Response


As the women from Malo walked into the Sanma Provincial Secretary General’s office with a sense of trepidation, humanitarian history was in the making.

“The women told us this was the first time they were consulted on their priorities for cyclone response. One woman shared that ‘we are told we belong in the gardens, not in conferences or meeting places’.  There is a gap that separates men and women in our society”, shared Flora Vano, ActionAid Vanuatu’s Country Program Manager.

“Then when we took a delegation of women from affected areas to the SG’s office to share priorities directly with the government, the women said it was also the first time they had ever stepped inside his office,” she said.

ActionAid, along with its partner Vanuatu Young Women for Change, met with 167 women from East and West Malo as part of its Rapid Needs Assessment following Tropical Cyclone Harold. The cyclone hit Vanuatu on 6 April impacting an estimated 159,000 people. Heavy rainfall and strong winds destroyed houses, businesses and agriculture across Vanuatu’s northern region. Malo Island in the Sanma Province was hit particularly hard with many people still living without shelter, water and adequate food. 

ActionAid’s community consultations with women on Malo Island provided a space to understand women’s experiences, the immediate household needs and priorities for humanitarian response. Women have highlighted a lack of access to clean and safe water as a major concern, which is impacting menstruating women and causing hygiene issues. All reported that their houses had moderate to severe damage, and women small business owners shared that these have been badly affected or destroyed. Women also reported an increase in violence against women following the cyclone, and an absence of a police post in Malo to intervene. 

Through the consultations women also had space to describe firsthand the distress caused by the cyclone and their efforts to recover. One woman said: “When our house was blown away, my husband, my children and my sister ran and hid under a Pandanus tree. We hid there until the wind stopped. We were cold and terrified but we held each other tight until the wind subsided. For a day we slept outside until we were able to put up a shed and move into it. We are still rebuilding our house while at the same time trying to plant some food so that we do not go hungry when our donated bag of rice runs out.”

Led by ni-Vanuatu women, the assessment demonstrates localisation in action by empowering women to lead during times of crisis. It builds on two years of investment under the Shifting the Power Coalition to support Pacific women’s leadership in humanitarian action, where both ActionAid Vanuatu and Vanuatu Young Women for Change are active members, along with the Vanuatu Disability Advocacy and Promotion association.  Now under the Australian Humanitarian Partnership, local women are being resourced to lead the emergency response, alongside other humanitarian actors.

The ActionAid’s response program includes the establishment of Women Friendly Spaces in three of the cyclone affected areas. These are a site for women to access information and safety as well as organise around their protection needs, which is critical on an island with no police presence. During the assessment, ActionAid and partners worked with the women and local authorities to identify a location for these tents, which the local women have named Haos Blo Blong Woman. Women have also given their priorities for items to be included in dignity kits, which have been assembled by women involved in the ActionAid supported Women I Tok Tok Tugeta (Women Talk Talk Together) forum in Eton.  

“This is one way we can show our love and solidarity with our sisters impacted by the Cyclone.  Each kit provides the vital supplies that women have told us that they need at this time of crisis,” said Dorah Avock, one of the WITTT Community Mobilisers that works with ActionAid.

WITTT emerged following Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu’s Southern islands in 2015. The ActionAid supported initiative has focused on supporting women’s leadership in preparing for and responding to disasters and climate change, and has now grown to a network of over 4000 women leaders who are actively engaging in decision-making in their communities. WITTT now plans to expand to include women from the Northern islands impacted by Cyclone Harold. Community mobilisers from WITTT are already en route to Malo to support the response effort.

By lifting the voices of women on the frontlines of disaster, ActionAid is supporting local communities to rebuild themselves. Women are the first responders in times of crisis and take on the burden of care meaning they clearly understand the urgent needs of their community. This localised approach to humanitarian response offers local women the rare opportunity to step up into leadership roles which can transform women’s status in society long after disaster recovery is achieved.

“Action Aid is driving localisation. We are making sure local people are using local resources and have been investing in that for the last five years. We are seeing the fruits of that investment now. Power dynamics are shifting towards the local women here and they are taking the lead,” said Flora Vano. 

By supporting women at the forefront of the Cyclone Harold disaster, ActionAid is continuing the momentum of shifting power to women and empowering local resilience in times of crisis.

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