Upholding women’s dignity after a disaster

Most Australian women have access to basic hygiene at all times, many of us always have tampons in our handbags just in case and in recent months most of us wouldn’t imagine leaving the house without a bottle of hand sanitiser. But for women on Vanuatu’s northern islands, maintaining personal health and hygiene has become an urgent issue since Tropical Cyclone Harold hit on 6 April. Overnight, the extreme weather destroyed homes, businesses and local infrastructure on the islands of Malo and Santo leaving them barely recognisable.

30.06.20

Since then there has been little access to clean and safe water with debris damaging water pipes and contaminating wells. Women told ActionAid they haven’t been able to bathe for up to a week, risking their health and wellbeing. Without access to safe sanitary products menstruating women may be forced to resort to using unhygienic and ineffective materials which puts them at risk of preventable health issues like urinary tract infections, toxic shock syndrome and reproductive problems. A lack of sanitary products also poses protection risks for menstruating women and girls who may experience feelings of embarrassment and shame.

ActionAid Vanuatu is delivering dignity kits to these women to ensure their most basic needs are met while their communities recover from disaster. By preserving dignity during a humanitarian crisis women and girls can maintain their health as well as their self-esteem and confidence to take part in and lead their community’s response and revival. Women’s needs do not stop in a crisis and must not be overlooked.

So far, 1000 Dignity Kits with Love have been put together with the help of ActionAid’s partners Women I Tok Tok Tugetha (WITTT) and Vanuatu Young Women for Change (VYWC). Each kit costs under $20AUD and contains sanitary pads, toilet paper, soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a towel, slippers and underwear. The contents were decided in discussion with the affected women themselves after 167 women were consulted through ActionAid’s Rapid Needs Assessment in May. The women told ActionAid this was the first time they had ever been consulted about their needs and priorities.

The products were bought from local shops around Port Vila and the kits were assembled by volunteers from local women’s organisations. The finished kits will be distributed on Malo by women leaders through the new Women Friendly Space supported by ActionAid. By consulting and working with women on the ground at every step, ActionAid is demonstrating the value of a localised approach to humanitarian aid and ensuring women’s needs are met.

“The dignity kits were packed by women in Port Vila with love and care for their sisters in Malo. This is one way we can show our love and solidarity with our sisters hurt 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, a WITTT Community Mobiliser.

Many women on Malo Island have been putting the welfare of others before their own, using what little clean water they have to bathe their children, cook and do laundry. Despite women being on the frontlines during disaster response and taking on the burden of care for the community’s most vulnerable, their needs are often overlooked. While shelter, food and medical aid rightfully take first priority after any humanitarian disaster, the vital health needs of women must not be neglected. Dignity kits will improve the psychological and physical wellbeing of women and girls after Tropical Cyclone Harold allowing them to actively participate in rebuilding their community.

In the days following the cyclone, many Malo women worked tirelessly to restore water pipes and roads that were damaged by fallen trees and branches, as well as replanting food crops that had survived. Along with basic health supplies these women also requested timber and iron roofing because there is a lack of local materials, like palm leaves, to fix their houses.

“The women told us that they want to rebuild better and stronger so that they are well prepared the next time a cyclone hits. This is crucial because climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of natural disasters across the region,” said Flora Vano, Country Manager of ActionAid Vanuatu.

The dignity kits are set to be distributed next week through the new Women Friendly Space which the local women have named Haos Blong Ol Women. The space will also function as a meeting place where women can safely discuss their issues and support needs, including any experiences of gender-based violence. Ten mobile phones will be available for women to access government, medical and counselling services and organise appointments. A small kitchen will provide meals for women at risk, including women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and women with disabilities.

Community mobilisers from WITTT and VYWC will also use this opportunity to deliver updated health messages to prevent the spread of Coronavirus in their communities. “Access to clean and safe sanitation is always important but it is crucial right now with the threat of COVID-19,” Ms Vano said.

Over time, the women friendly space will transform from a crisis response to a platform for women’s voices to be heard by their communities and beyond. By listening to the needs and priorities of local women on Malo Island we not only uphold their dignity during this time of crisis, we also support their leadership potential.