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How Some Pacific Women are Responding to Climate Change and Natural Disasters

Women in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu are dealing with six crises currently – COVID 19, drought, scarcity of potable water, and volcanic ash, acid rain and sulphur gas as there are several active volcanoes on the island. But global women’s rights organisations are collaborating with regional alliances in supporting local women.

ActionAid Vanuatu conducted COVID 19 awareness and TC Harold early warning preparedness for islanders. Cyclone TC Harold made landfall on the South Pacific island nation this month. Courtesy: ActionAid Vanuatu

SYDNEY, Apr 20 2020 (IPS) - Sitting atop a banyan tree branch, Fiona Robyn had a cell phone tightly clasped in her fist raised high to get a signal. She was impatiently waiting for the SMS weather alert from the Women’s Wetem Weta (Women’s Weather Watch (WWW)) hub in Port Vila as cyclone TC Harold raged towards the Republic of Vanuatu in the South Pacific Ocean on Apr. 5.

No sooner had she received the message, Robyn, a WWW leader in Eton on the eastern coast of Efate island in Vanuatu, immediately swung into action. She began mobilising other women and youth to help widows, the physically challenged and older people secure their roofs, store food and clean water, secure documents in air tight containers, and move those in unsafe houses to the local school serving as an evacuation centre.

When natural disasters strike, women are the first responders for their families and communities. The WWW programme is giving women in remote areas access to appropriate timely information, and building their capacity and confidence to communicate complex scientific weather and climate information from the Meteorological Department in simple “disaster ready” warnings to prepare for cyclones, floods, droughts and volcanic eruptions.

“Women in my community are taking lead in disaster preparedness, emergency and humanitarian crises situations. Our husbands are beginning to acknowledge this transformation,” Robyn told IPS. She is one of about 60 WWW leaders aged between 18 and 33 years, who are working on the frontline in Erromango and Tanna islands in Shefa province, and in Efate island in Tafea province of Vanuatu, which is recognised as one of the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change and disasters in the world.

In 2015, Cyclone Pam had seriously harmed the livelihoods of over 40,000 households and resulted in economic damages accounting for 64 percent of the country’s GDP. This month, TC Harold made landfall at Category 5 causing wide scale damage to infrastructure and vegetable and food gardens.

Global women’s rights organisation, ActionAid is collaborating with Shifting the Power Coalition (StPC), a regional alliance of 13 women-led civil society organisations from six Pacific Forum member countries, WWW, Women I Tok Tok Tugeta (WITTT), a coalition of women leader groups, and the National Disaster Management System in supporting local women through training, network building and research to ensure women’s rights and needs are addressed in climate change and humanitarian disaster response.

“Some of our women are dealing with six crises currently – COVID 19, drought, scarcity of potable water, and volcanic ash, acid rain and sulphur gas as we have several active volcanoes,” ActionAid Vanuatu’s country programme manager, Flora Vano told IPS from the WWW hub in the country’s capital, Port Vila.

The hub is a message bank, where information received from the Meteorological Department and women leaders is stored and shared.

“It is a two-way communication process which is enabling women to become leaders in disaster planning and adaptation. For example, women leaders will message the hub that a cyclone is approaching and we don’t have water supply. We relay this information to the Department of Water so they can help the community.

“Similarly, women will message about crops being damaged by a pest. We convey this information to the Department of Agriculture, who in turn informs us of what the community needs to do or they will send officials on the ground to ensure food security,” Vano said.

The messaging service, a combination of SMS and in-person for remote areas, has reached 77,000 people or nearly a quarter of Vanuatu’s population.

“Each woman leader looks after three to four villages and in each village, the women convene their own sister circles. They communicate weather alerts in local languages so women can understand and take requisite action. For example, if there is a gale force wind warning, we explain that this level of wind speed means it can move a thatched roof house or if there is a mango or coconut tree near the house, there is high probability of it falling and damaging the house,” Vano added.

When natural disasters strike, women are the first responders for their families and communities. ActionAid Vanuatu conducted COVID 19 awareness and TC Harold early warning preparedness for islanders. Courtesy: ActionAid Vanuatu

WWW, which is recognised as the gender best practice by the World Meteorological Organisation, is an inter-operable information and communication system that was adapted for Vanuatu by Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, technical adviser of StPC, based on the Fiji Women’s Weather Watch.  Bhagwan-Rolls developed the system with and for rural women so that they could access meteorological information to enhance disaster preparedness, and have their own channels of communication to share reports to ensure local and national disaster response is inclusive and accountable to women of all diversities. 

StPC focuses on strengthening the collective power, influence and leadership of Pacific women in responding to disasters and climate change. It shows how local information becomes not just national, but also regional and it has given women the opportunity to participate in national and international forums and influence the agenda on disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation.

“The new Pacific Young Women Responding to Climate Change programme supported by the Australia Pacific Climate Partnership, which we are rolling out shortly, is engaging with young women and looking at demystifying climate science and information in a way that it not only boosts disaster preparedness plans, but also how information from meteorological/weather office can be used to improve planning of health programmes, food security and women’s leadership in new livelihood initiatives offering economic alternatives,” Bhagwan-Rolls told IPS.

“It will build the capacity of young women while utilising the traditional, indigenous knowledge of older women and marrying it with science to use climate service information a lot better. In Pacific Island countries, the traditional village development planning committees tend to be led by men. Through collaboration of the StPC, women leaders are learning how to engage with traditional leaders, and faith leaders because our church community is very strong,” Bhagwan-Rolls added.

Vanuatu, like most Pacific Island countries, except Tonga and Palau, has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but gender inequalities exist.

“In most countries in the Global South, women are at the frontlines of the global climate emergency. It is critical to involve women in decision making on climate action. Supporting women to take leadership positions in emergencies not only ensures that women’s immediate needs are addressed, it also has a lasting positive impact on gender equality, particularly in countries like Vanuatu where women have no voice in the National Parliament,” says Carol Angir, ActionAid Australia’s programme manager for Women’s Rights and Emergencies.

Members of the 2018 and 2019 G7 Gender Equality Advisory Councils, including Women Deliver, an international organisation advocating around the world for gender equality and the health and rights of girls and women, are urgently calling on G7 member states to take into account the gendered dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis and to prevent the deterioration of gender equality and women’s rights worldwide.

In a letter, they are urging governments to take special measures to support healthcare and social workers, create additional emergency shelter spaces, ensure immediate removal of abusers from homes, keep all girls engaged in learning, guarantee access to sexual and reproductive health services, and provide free menstrual and modern contraception products for girls and women.


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