We landed in Vanuatu in the dead of the night. Electricity hasn’t yet been entirely restored, and until it is, the government has implemented a 6pm curfew as a precautionary measure to ensure the safety of the people of Port Vila.
So we drove to the hotel in the pitch black stillness, with nobody else on the road and only an occasional generator-powered street light giving us small glimpses of the landscape here and there along the way. We fell asleep not having seen where we were, and not knowing what devastation we would wake up to.
We woke this morning and stepped out into a light (and bustling!) Port Vila. Despite the disaster, the people of Port Vila carry on as they must – businesses have reopened and cars fill the streets.
As we drove around the tiny city, despite rapid clean-up efforts by the people of Port Vila, Cyclone Pam’s destruction became increasingly apparent. A concrete wall smashed in two by a fallen tree. Boats – small boats, large boats – crumpled up against the shores of the harbour. Roofless homes.
We set about meeting local women’s organisations who are hard at work responding to the emergency, and whom we are committed to supporting.
And these organisations underlined key facts for us: violence against women is a critical issue in Vanuatu. Domestic violence is rampant, and much work is already under way in the hands of women’s rights agencies to end it, and to provide women who have survived domestic violence with the support that they need.
They communicated to us great, well-founded fears that women living in evacuation centres in Vanuatu are at significant risk of increased violence. The centres aren’t well-lit, and in many instances the women have to share dark bathrooms with the men.
And those women who are still living at home with their families are also at greater risk – domestic violence surges during an emergency.
And yet, very few instances of domestic violence have been reported since the cyclone. In fact, the Vanuatu Women’s Centre hasn’t seen any women since Cylone Pam struck. The women who would usually be reaching out for help, they said, are busy rebuilding their homes and rebuilding their lives.
But local women’s organisations are working in Vanuatu to ensure that women have access to reporting mechanisms and to the support they need when they have suffered violence – be it counselling support or legal support.
Our first day in Vanuatu confirmed what we already knew: women’s organisations are doing incredible work to protect women’s rights, particularly in emergency contexts. They’re leading the way, and ActionAid is committed to supporting them.
Photo: ActionAid's Carol Angir and Holly Miller with members of the Vanuatu Women's Centre, a local organisation working to protect women's rights and address violence against women as part of the emergency response to Cyclone Pam.