On World Humanitarian Day, a reminder that humanitarian support to women and girls impacted by crises, in the Pacific region and around the world, can mean the difference between life and death.
In May 2017 Tropical Cyclone Donna tore through the northern provinces of Vanuatu, with torrential rains and winds of over 300 kilometres per hour -- the strongest out-of-season cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere -- destroying and damaging homes, crops, livestock and water systems, and forcing thousands of people into evacuation centres and caves.
Amid the chaos, a pregnant woman on the western coast of Santo Island died on her way to a health facility. The region is marked by particularly daunting terrain where the few clinics that do exist can only be accessed by boat. The rough seas and weather conditions triggered by the Category 5 cyclone prevented safe travel for several weeks.
Vanuatu, considered the world's most vulnerable country to natural disasters, had barely emerged from the devastation of Tropical Cyclone Pam of 2015 when Donna hit. Australia has been working closely with the Vanuatu Government to help with recovery and reconstruction efforts following Pam's devastation. However, in remote areas including Santo Island -- and many other island nations and territories in the Pacific region -- access to reproductive health services is heavily disrupted during crisis situations, proving fatal for many women and girls needing this lifesaving support.
The expectant mother's tragic death in storm-battered Vanuatu is a stark reminder that providing sexual and reproductive health care as part of an emergency response is just as essential as providing food, water and shelter.
Disasters kill more women than men. On average, one in five women of childbearing age are likely to be pregnant when a crisis strikes. Of these, 15 percent will experience pregnancy-related complications, and many risk losing their lives if they cannot access proper health care.
Women displaced by disasters are often highly vulnerable to gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and other abuse. Disasters exacerbate gender inequalities and negatively impact women and girls during their time of greatest vulnerability.
Australia has long been committed to providing essential reproductive health services as part of our responses to crises across the Indo-Pacific region, working closely with governments, the United Nations and local organisations to ensure they are prepared to respond quickly in the event of a disaster. The Pacific Sub-Regional Office of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, with funding from the Australian Government, prioritises pre-positioning and immediate distribution of reproductive health kits to support the treatment of pregnancy-related complications, safe deliveries and post-rape care in crisis-affected settings.
Additionally, UNFPA distributes culturally-customised kits containing essential items, including sanitary napkins, underwear and torches, to allow women and girls impacted by crises to maintain their personal hygiene and dignity.
UNFPA also provides psychological and social support and referral services for survivors of gender-based violence and those who are at high risk.
These services help to save lives, provide protection to some of the most vulnerable people in crisis settings, and help women recover and rebuild their and their families' lives following disasters.
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In February 2016, the island nation of Fiji was devastated by Tropical Cyclone Winston, the strongest tropical cyclone recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.
One week after Winston hit Fiji, Elenoa, age 33, awoke at 4am to unexpected birth pangs. Her baby wasn't due for several more weeks. Her husband was not at home as he had travelled to the village where they had both grown up, because they had heard that barely two or three homes in the village were left standing in Winston's wake, and were worried about their parents' well-being.
In labour, Elenoa travelled by foot for over half an hour on dark roads covered with debris, before arriving at a UNFPA-supported hospital where she gave birth a few hours later. The baby was a healthy girl.
Elenoa had arrived at the hospital without supplies or a change of clothing. After her daughter was born, Elenoa was given hygiene items and clothes for both her and her baby. As she looked through it, she kept repeating, "Thank you, thank you so much."
Elenoa was lucky. Approximately 540,000 people, or 62 percent of Fiji's population, were impacted by the Category 5 cyclone -- and approximately 5,600 of them were pregnant women. The storm also destroyed eight large hospitals and damaged 55 others to the extent that their functionality was limited. Although the Fiji Ministry of Health and Medical Services, supported by partners such as the Australian Government and UNFPA, provided increased outreach services and mobile clinics, many women had to travel much further than Elenoa to find optimal services -- if they could access a facility at all.
Two storms, two women, two stories, with two endings. The difference between heartbreak and joy in these stories -- and millions of others like them around the world -- lies in access to critical health services in the aftermath of natural disaster.
On World Humanitarian Day, the Australian Government and UNFPA re-commit to promoting the health and safety of vulnerable women and girls as part of our humanitarian support to countries in the Pacific, and beyond.
For more on UNFPA's humanitarian response in Asia-Pacific and globally, access:
UNFPA Responding to Emergencies across Asia and the Pacific: http://bit.ly/2t87Omm
Shelter from the Storm: State of World Population Report 2015: http://www.unfpa.org/swop-2015
For more on Australia's Humanitarian Preparedness and Response, access: http://bit.ly/1FYtJlj