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World

Disaster risk reduction, aiding women's groups high on agenda in Vanuatu

As recovery efforts gain pace in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam tore across the archipelago, there are lessons to be learned about disaster preparedness and the welfare of women. Jack Fisher reports from Sydney.

In Vanuatu, streets remain flooded and covered with debris. Power and phone lines have been cut and water contaminated. The official toll of eight dead is feared to rise, while tens of thousands are homeless.

Cyclone Pam is believed to be the worst storm to hit Vanuatu since 1987, when Cylone Uma killed dozens of people and sank ferries off the capital, Port Vila.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has announced $5 million in initial relief aid to the Pacific archipelago, while New Zealand has offered $2.5 million in assistance.

Britain, which jointly controled Vanuatu with France until 1980, has also offered up to two million pounds towards the recovery effort.

Posting on Facebook, Vanuatu's Lands Minister Ralph Regenvanu said aerial surveillance had been carried out over Vanatu's southernmost provinces, Shefa and Tafea, with the northern provinces to be surveyed on Tuesday.

uprooted tree

Pam left unbelievable destruction in its wake

Regenvanu wrote that Vanuatu's two telecommunications companies, TVL and Digicel, are working to restore service to the rest of the country. With mobile coverage limited to Port Vila and surroundings at the moment, organizers are uncertain about the extent of damage across the northern islands.

Once surveillance is complete, a state of emergency - already declared in the main island province of Shefa - could then be extended nationwide.

A number of Australian NGOs are mobilizing to respond to Cyclone Pam. The Australian Government has both humanitarian personnel on the ground, as well as supporting supplies to get into Vanuatu.

Australia is by far the largest source of foreign aid in the Pacific Islands region. The Australian government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, has come under criticism over deep cuts to foreign aid last year.

As part of wide ranging budget cuts, the Australian government has pulled over $11 billion from Australia's foreign aid program over four years to offset new commitments in defense and national security.

Women at the forefront

Anti-poverty agency ActionAid Australia has said they will support local women's groups among front-line responders in the disaster relief response.

ActionAid Deputy Executive Director Michelle Higelin says that women's organizations in Vanuatu are well-equipped with community networks and mobilization skills.

"Unfortunately, what they lack is the access to resources to really scale-up their efforts," she told DW. "They also lack the ability to participate in decision-making structures around disaster response."

"In every disaster, we see women make up the majority of those who lose their lives or are affected by disaster, particularly due to a range of vulnerabilities related to gender inequality and their overrepresentation among the poor."

"We're really concerned that we may see an increase in violence against women, which is already high across the Pacific region."

2013's devastating Typhoon Haiyan exacerbated the ongoing risk of sexual violence and trafficking in the Philippines.

The United Nations Population Fund estimated that 5,000 women were exposed to sexual violence in the month after the typhoon alone. The damage to hundreds of health care facilities in the Philippines left more than 270,000 pregnant women facing heightened maternal health risks.

Higelin says that during the Haiyan recovery, Action Aid were repeatedly told that responses to violence against women could not be enacted until there was sufficient evidence of that violence.

packages, boxes in airplane hold

Australian relief aid on its way

"For us, this is unacceptable. Do we have to wait to see the reports? Do we have to wait to see women experiencing violence in camps for displaced people? We know this is a common occurrence in every single disaster that we've been involved in."

"Protection of women's rights tends to be an afterthought; it's not given immediate attention. Governments tend to prioritize those more visible immediate relief needs."

Disaster preparedness

Cyclone Pam hit as Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale attended the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. President Lonsdale has used the platform to appeal to the international community for support.

The conference has seen developed and developing countries attempt to flesh out strategies and commitments to reduce the risks posed by disasters. Cyclone Pam has highlighted the impact that risk-reduction can have in the aftermath of disaster and in longer-term efforts around poverty reduction.

Earlier this month, the UN's Office for Disaster Risk Reduction announced findings that climate-related disasters now account for 87 percent of all disaster events.Michelle Higelin says the conference has seen an unwillingness by developed countries to set quantifiable targets and to negotiate around financing.

"The critically issue is about the sustained support to Vanuatu and other countries who are experiencing the impact of disasters, which are increasingly in frequency, scale and impact."

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