Vanuatu is the world’s most at risk country to natural disasters and of concern, women and girls are the most affected. Reflecting on this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations, the Department of Women’s Affairs acknowledges the leadership and resilience of all women and girls with a focus on those who have experienced emergency and recovery.

As highlighted in the National Gender Equality Policy (NGEP) 2015 – 2019, women’s empowerment is a vital step in achieving gender equality as it leads to ensuring that women and men are equal partners in the development and growth of Vanuatu.

However, women’s empowerment in Vanuatu is affected by barriers including high rates of violence committed by men against women and girls, marginalization of women from decision making and leadership at all levels; and lack of access and control over finance and land. These barriers have been identified during mass disasters including Tropical Cyclone Pam and the Ambae Lobenben volcanic eruption and also exist in development settings.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Balance for Better’ and as we enter the recovery period for Ambae, there are opportunities to deliver programs that aim to promote gender equality. The Department of Women’s Affairs recognises that to do this we must work through programs 1) for women, 2) at the household level with couples, 3) with community leaders to promote gender equality to men, women, girls and boys; 4) to mainstream and integrate gender into all sectors.

Director General Dorosday Kenneth Watson of the Ministry of Justice and Community Services comments, “The Department of Women’s Affairs and Ministry is aiming for collective responsibility and all sectors must rise up together to focus on gender equality during Ambae recovery. We believe that Vanuatu is ready for this, the challenges are willingness to make it happen and funding”.

Interagency collaboration was successful during the 2018 State of Emergency for example where a joint Gender and Protection and Health Cluster accomplished significant results. With funding from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs, NDMO, Malampa and Sanma Provincial Governments and churches, the joint cluster was able to provide integrated assistance and services to people with special needs that had been evacuated from Ambae to Santo.

To implement the National Sustainable Development Plan and NGEP commitments, the Department and Ministry are aiming to continue interagency collaboration in Ambae recovery. Partnerships between government, NGOs, churches, community leaders and communities will also be essential to promote self-led recovery for our people.

Some initiatives that have been successful during emergency and recovery periods in Vanuatu have included increasing the representation of women on Community Disaster and Climate Change Committees and Water Committees, mamas groups, outreach on violence prevention and response, leadership and confidence building initiatives and skills training.‘

We also need to consider the barriers and a key concern that has been reported by women and girls that have been displaced from or returned to Ambae is domestic violence. Women have also asked for skills training and resources to help them to rebuild livelihoods. However, many women and families do not have access to land or resources, affecting safeguards for recovery, including protection against future disaster.

This is an opportunity for sectors to come together to promote gender equality. The Gender and Protection Sector can implement our sector programs and also assist other sectors to mainstream and integrate gender throughout their actions.

Interagency collaboration for example could include the Department of Women’s Affairs and the Department of Agriculture working on livelihoods programs for women who have returned to Ambae or have resettled on other islands.

Such a program could include skills building, financial management training and leadership for women; components promoting violence prevention and healthy relationships for couples; and initiatives for communities that address gender equality.

As most people rely on land for subsistence and income generation, and women are the most vulnerable, interagency initiatives would also need to work closely with the Public Works Department, National Recovery Committee and Second Home Program to ensure that assistance is needs based, support is provided in land acquisition and safeguards are in place for those that do not have the resources to secure land.

A key policy commitment of government and donors is gender equality and with funding, we can rise up to achieve this together with our stakeholders. This is an exciting time for Vanuatu in 2019 and beyond.

The Department of Women’s Affairs thanks partners and bilateral donors including the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, FRANZ, New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, RedR Australia, UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA and UN Women that have supported response to the Ambae emergency. As the National Recovery Plan for Ambae is being finalised, the Department and Ministry looks forward to continued collaboration to achieve gender equality during the recovery phase.