In 2018, the Manaro Volcano on the tiny island of Ambae in Vanuatu began spewing toxic ash, destroying traditional houses, rendering grazing lands unusable and contaminating both food and water sources for the island’s residents. In August of the same year, t he Vanuatu Government declared the second state of emergency within a year and announced the compulsory relocation of all residents to nearby islands. The entire population of 11,000 people were internally relocated to evacuation centres or host communities whilst they awaited permanent relocation off-island.The Vanuatu Family Health Association (VFHA), a Member Association of the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, is Vanuatu’s pioneering sexual and reproductive health and rights organization. Having recently been trained on emergency responses, they were well positioned to provide sexual and reproductive healthcare to the islands residents, an area often overlooked by aid agencies. A team from the capital Port Vila flew to Ambae Island to deliver emergency sexual and reproductive healthcare to evacuees. Whilst they were there, evacuees were moved to neighbouring Maewo Island, so the team followed the communities on the evacuation ship to continue emergency outreach services. This team included nurse Leias, who was also involved in the previous humanitarian response in 2017.
Given the large numbers of people moving and congregating in evacuation centres, there were significant sexual and reproductive health, gender and protection concerns: an increase in gender-based violence, lack of care for people with disabilities; general safety, protection and dignity of displaced and host communities, and overloaded or lack of health services.
Nurse Leias is passionate about delivering sexual and reproductive awareness sessions to local communities and providing sexual and reproductive healthcare through our mobile health clinics, which she was able to set up anywhere, whether they were in primary school classrooms, community halls, or under a mango tree. She says of some of the existing challenges facing women:
“In Vanuatu, sexual and reproductive health is still taboo. Women do not have enough information for them to really understand the importance of accessing our services. In Vanuatu husbands are the head of household and women feel they must ask before accessing contraceptives. When people were going through this evacuation, they were not thinking SRH was important. The challenge for us is convincing people to come and get the services we are providing. We must provide awareness first, and then the services.”
VFHA provided antenatal and postnatal services, STI diagnosis and treatment, and contraceptives. “We are very fortunate to be able to provide these services to people affected by this situation. I also provide sexual and reproductive awareness, especially around the topics of teenage pregnancies, reducing STI and HIV and advocating for family planning. We really want more women to understand the importance of family planning and come forward to get it,” she said. Whilst emergencies create immense challenges, they also provide opportunities for organisations like the Vanuatu Family Health Association to reach remote communities, to increase sexual literacy rates, and to provide women with reproductive choices.
SOURCE: WHDASIA PACIFIC