A woman on Tongariki preparing food for her family, after cyclone Pam. At that time garden crops were damaged and limited. Photo: Anita Roberts

When women are empowered to lead humanitarian responses, their whole community recovers faster.

The above statement was made by ActionAid Vanuatu’s Program Manager, Flora Vano.

She says during disasters, women are on the frontline, caring for their communities, evacuating and caring for their children, the injured, the elderly and making sure their families have enough food and water.

Women always put their family’s welfare before valuable things, she said.

“For example, a husband will think of preparing his assets like a boat or truck while a mother will be getting extra clothes, documents and food for their children to move if their house unsafe to withstand a Category 5 cyclone.

“For women it’s always safety first, they are the first responders at home and when you put them in charge of a committee, they take it very seriously.

“The man-made things will come later. Live matters to women, their safety, dignity and protection is number one priority and will always be,” she said.

Vano says after Cyclone Pam, ActionAid Vanuatu established a women’s forum, the Woman I Toktok Tugeta (WITT), to lead the national disaster response.

The forum offers women a safe space to receive support, have their voices heard and collaborate to ensure future emergency preparations.

“This action ensures women would not be forgotten and establish an entry point for ongoing work to support their rights and take greater leadership in long term work related to disaster preparedness and responses,” said Vano.

“The responses also provided an opportunity to use the power of information to support women to demand the things they needed to realise their rights after disasters, and in so doing to hold the humanitarian sector to account to recognise, value and respond to women. Government, women leaders and international NGOs recognise ActionAid’s work for promoting women’s visibility as first responders in a disaster,” she said.

She says ActionAid puts women at the centre of their work.

“As they are the first responders to these types of emergencies, we equip them with resources, skills and knowledge by training them to be able to have self-confidence to have their voices heard,” she said.

“We have given them the fishing line, hooks, baits and taught them how to fish, then showed them the fishing site and let them learn to catch their own fish.

“We are not handing it to them on a silver plate but rather have them learn skills that will survive them when ActionAid decides to move on.”

Vano said ActionAid’s work with women in Vanuatu has provided a space for women to participate in disaster committees and provincial disaster emergency operations centers making sure that decisions are inclusive.

“The impact is transformative, WITT members, they prepare early and it saves lives,” she added.

“Communities have come to understand that WITT members are getting accurate information to inform communities of early warning preparedness.

“They also have new income streams and alternative livelihoods that they have identified to grow during peace time so when they are in crisis it can support them in terms of cash, food security alongside their safety, dignity and protection.”