CANADEM's Humanitarian Response in Vanuatu
Sheroes of Vanuatu
From Cyclones to Resilience
David Palazón with UNFPA in Vanuatu
Vanuatu, the island nation in the South Pacific, is a land of contrasts—its stunning natural beauty offset by its vulnerability to deadly natural disasters like cyclones, earthquakes, and tsunamis. In March 2023, the country experienced the wrath of Tropical Cyclones Judy and Kevin, causing widespread damage that affected 130,000 people. This put women and girls at particular risk due to limited access to reproductive health care and other essential services.
David Palazón, a CANADEM associate, was deployed to Vanuatu from May to August 2023 as a Surge Communications Specialist with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Supported by the USAID-Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, his primary role was to document UNFPA's humanitarian efforts focusing on the protection and sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls in cyclone-affected areas. UNFPA's objectives were threefold: strengthen the local healthcare workforce, distribute essential menstrual hygiene supplies, and establish safe spaces for women and girls in the hardest-hit areas.
UNFPA's emergency interventions yielded tangible results. Within a two-month surge deployment, the midwifery teams administered sexual and reproductive health services to more than 1,500 women and girls and conducted over 6,000 awareness and counselling sessions. Together with partners ActionAid and Care Vanuatu, UNFPA disbursed more than 3,200 dignity and menstrual management kits in the worst-affected areas. UNFPA established five Women and Girls Friendly Spaces in Efate province, attracting over 600 women in the first three days, underscoring the immediate needs and desire for this community-driven initiative
David, accompanied by local UNFPA staff Patience Tosso and Roslyn David, at the Port Vila office
I owe a profound debt of gratitude to the UNFPA Pacific Sub-Regional Office humanitarian team, particularly the dedicated staff and partners in Vanuatu, for facilitating my mission. But above all, this story is a tribute to the women I encountered in Vanuatu. Their courageous efforts, often unseen, form a vibrant tapestry of community support and female empowerment. They are the true sheroes of this story, shaping not just my experience but the future of their communities.
Janet Orah, a council administrator in Epi Island, uses her quad bike to reach her community, where she champions women's leadership and inclusivity. 'When women take the initiative, we can make significant changes, be it in our family, in our community, or the entire island,' she said.
Dignity kits proved to be much more than hygiene supplies; they were a gateway to broader discussions on sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and Gender-Based Violence (GBV). Lizzie Molli, ActionAid's Livelihood Coordinator, led awareness sessions on these critical topics. "Empowering women in Vanuatu, particularly in emergency situations, is my driving passion," she said.
United in regional solidarity, Fijian midwives joined their Ni-Vanuatu counterparts for a waterfront march on International Nurses Day. The Fijian midwives were deployed by UNFPA to strengthen reproductive health workforce after the cyclone. "Supporting the local workforce was our mission," said Emily, leftmost.
Selina Solman, 28, who captains the Vanuatu Women's Cricket Team, speaks openly about confounding gender expectations. "Some members of my family occasionally suggest I should be at home, cooking lap-lap (cassava). They see only the woman, not the cricketer," she explained but despite such comments, Selina embraces them as an opportunity to strengthen her confidence.
Roslyn David, Programme Specialist for UNFPA Vanuatu, is captured smiling during a Women and Girls Safe Spaces community training. As my go-to liaison in the UNFPA field office, her kindness and expertise were invaluable. “I love this story, David. It permeates strong woman in Vanuatu,” said Roslyn after reading one of my stories profiling young women cricketers promoting gender equality in Vanuatu.
Meriel Keni, a 26-year-old trailblazer, holds the unique title of being Vanuatu's first female international cricket umpire. Juggling her role as a bank loan officer and a single mother, Meriel made her international debut in 2022. Faced with challenges on and off the field, including overcoming personal hardship, she remains steadfast. When asked for advice to girls who might face similar challenges, Merial emphasises the importance of prioritising oneself. She shares "Sometimes you have to lose in order to win. In my case I lost many friends who never supported my love for cricket. My ex-partner never came to watch any of my games" she says, setting a bold example for women in sports.
Sarah Maia, a midwife, stands amid the ruins of a cyclone-damaged clinic room at Lenakel Hospital. Over half of women in Vanuatu already experienced high levels of physical or sexual violence before the cyclone. "The cyclone has increased women's vulnerability to sexual abuse," shares Sarah, a survivor of gender-based violence (GBV).
All the women of Nuvi village gather happily in front of their Nakamal after receiving their dignity kits during the UNFPA distribution. The dignity kits equip these women with essentials to maintain their health, hygiene, and dignity.
Marie Wawa, a 24-year-old mother, starred in the Oscar-nominated film 'Tanna,' an Australian-Ni-Vanuatu production inspired by the Romeo and Juliet tale. In the film, she portrayed a young woman who chooses love over a traditional arranged marriage. Reflecting on her experience, Marie says, "I love acting, but the real-life love I share with my husband surpasses even the love I portrayed on screen."
Rosineth Kaio, 32, Deputy Academic Principal at Kwataparen Secondary School, is pioneering Family Life Education in her curriculum. Covering key areas like sexual health and healthy relationships, she's breaking cultural taboos. Her vision is to have national reach with this curriculum, focusing on adolescents. "This workshop is not a mere coincidence," she asserts after attending the UNFPA Women and Girls Friendly Space training. She aims to make her school a model for sexual health education in Vanuatu.
A confident group of girls at Epi High School gather in their classroom, proudly displaying one of the UNFPA menstrual hygiene management kits they received during a menstrual hygiene awareness session.
A Tannese mother takes part in her son's circumcision ceremony, a significant rite of passage into manhood, showcasing the essential role of Tannese women in preserving traditions and shaping the island's cultural heritage.
By sheer chance, we encountered Rose Marie, a 25-year-old mother who had given birth during the tumultuous night of the cyclone. "My fear spiked as the storm grew but having the midwife with me made all the difference. Her calm focus helped me to safely deliver my baby. As a sign of gratitude, we named the baby 'Judy,' after the cyclone," shared Rose Marie, her face lighting up with a joyful smile.
Emily Niras stands against the backdrop of Mount Yasur, Tanna's iconic volcano. Emily, a native of Tanna Island, was the perfect guide during my mission. Emily provided me with invaluable insights into Tannese indigenous traditions around menstruation and sexual reproductive health. In this culture, women are considered 'Swatu,' the symbolic connectors that bind families with love and care. "We stand as 'Napeuk,' the grand banyan tree that signifies the end of the road and the focal point for community ceremonies. In our role as 'Tupunes' (food), we proudly take on the duty of nourishing our families and communities," explains Emily Niras.
As I prepared to leave Vanuatu, the lessons learned from these incredible women stayed in my thoughts. Each story was a testament to the enduring strength of women in the face of adversity, their capacity to build, nourish, and heal their communities.
Upon my return home, life gifted me with a beautiful full circle: my wife and I discovered we're expecting a baby girl. Knowing the resilience and strength I had witnessed in the women of Vanuatu, I couldn't help but feel a heightened sense of awe and anticipation for the woman our daughter might become.
It was a beautiful coincidence that encapsulated the essence of my journey—a journey that wasn't just about documenting the lives of others but about enriching my own understanding of resilience, womanhood, and the shared human experience.
All photos © David Palazón / UNFPA