Issue 75 - Article 10

Disaster, response and relationships: a gendered approach to localising disaster risk reduction in the Pacific

May 31, 2019
Subhashni Raj, Brigitte Laboukly and Shantony Moli

Cyclones, floods, droughts and earthquakes in the Pacific are increasing in both intensity and frequency, with devastating impacts, especially for women and girls. Global evidence indicates that women are generally at higher risk of being affected by disasters and have different levels of resilience and capacity to recover E. Neumayer and T. Plümper, ‘The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters: The Impact of Catastrophic Events on the Gender Gap in Life Expectancy, 1981–2002’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 2007, 97(3). .This is particularly true in Pacific countries, where women experience significant gender inequality, evidenced by their lower socio-economic status compared to men, lower access to paid employment, lower access to information and early warnings, less control of and access to economic resources and high levels of sexual and gender-based violence. R. Lane and R. McNaught, ‘Building Gendered Approaches to Adaptation in the Pacific’, Gender & Development, 2009, 17(1). Moreover, the skills of Pacific women are often under- utilised in disaster preparedness, response and recovery, even though women and girls are often first responders in crises and, when given the opportunity, have the capacity to lead in disaster preparation and response and resilience-building. This article illustrates the importance of using a gendered approach to community-based disaster risk reduction, and highlights the challenges of localising such efforts in the South Pacific.

The Women’s Peace & Humanitarian Fund: galvanising gender-responsive humanitarian action

Despite recognition of the critical role women and girls play in humanitarian response and peace-building, very little funding globally is being directed towards interventions focused on women and girls. According to OCHA’s Financial Tracking System, only 1% of projects had an explicit goal of closing gender gaps by taking targeted action for women and girls. Similarly, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that, between 2012 and 2013, only 1% of all funding to fragile states went to local women’s groups or government ministries with a mandate for women.

The Women’s Peace & Humanitarian Fund (WPHF) was established in 2016 in response to these global disparities in funding. WPHF aims to galvanise action globally to mobilise resources for women’s participation, leadership and empowerment in the humanitarian, peace and security sphere. The Fund is a global partnership of donors, conflict-affected states, United Nations entities and civil society. Overseen by a Board made up of representatives of these stakeholders, the Fund provides funding to local women’s groups and ministries globally. UN Women provides secretariat support and coordination to implement the decisions of the Funding Board.

The first round of WPHF proposals in the South Pacific was solicited between 2017 and 2018. With a total allocation of $2 million in the Pacific, seven full projects and one pilot were selected from among the submissions. The eight projects span five Pacific Island countries, with three projects in Fiji, two in the Solomon Islands and one each in Palau, Samoa and Vanuatu. The implementation timeframe for each full project ranges from 18 to 24 months. This article examines one of the WPHF grantee projects, the Localization Project in Vanuatu, to draw out lessons for gender-responsive disaster risk reduction and response.


Vanuatu, an island nation west of Fiji, consists of about 80 islands comprising a total land area of 12,281 square kilometres. Its population is around 289,000, with a roughly even gender split. Vanuatu is highly prone to disasters given its geographical location. It is ranked first out of 172 countries in terms of disaster risk, and sits on the ‘Ring of Fire’, a seismically active zone bordering the Pacific basin. K. Radtke et al., World Risk Report, Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft and Ruhr University Bochum – Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV), 2018. Countries in this zone are more likely to be exposed to natural hazards like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of seismic activity. Vanuatu also faces significant threats from climate change, which is increasing the frequency and magnitude of disasters.

In relation to the socio-economic context, women and girls in Vanuatu (and across the Pacific) experience persistent gender inequality. Gender disparities are illustrated by the low number of seats held by women in parliament: currently zero, and only five women have been elected to parliament since independence in 1980. UNDP, Pacific Women in Politics, 2019 (www.pacworg/country-profiles/ vanuatu/). Less than 1% of the total government budget was allocated to women’s ministries and departments. SPC, National Minimum Development Indicators – Gender Indicators, 2016 ( Sixty percent of ni-Vanuatu women have experienced partner violence and 49% of women affected had left their homes temporarily several times, though lack of income limits their choices following acts of violence. Vanuatu Women’s Centre, Vanuatu Women’s Centre and Vanuatu National Statistics Office, Vanuatu National Survey on Women Lives and Family Relationships, 2011. Low rates of political participation and funding contribute to gender-blind political structures and processes, especially in traditionally patriarchal societies such as Vanuatu.

The Localization Project

The Localization Project, jointly implemented by Save the Children and CARE Vanuatu, sought to increase the involvement of local civil society organisations (CSOs) in leading work on gender and protection responses in emergencies. The project, which ran for 17 months from August 2017, was based on the premise that, by localising the functions of the Gender and Protection Cluster in Vanuatu, women and girls’ participation in disaster response would be increased. The project trained female members of Community Disaster and Climate Change Committees (CDCCCs) and Provincial Disaster Committees (PDCs) on disaster preparedness, response and relief. Implementing partners also trained girls aged 12–17 participating in School Disaster Committees (SDCs) on child- led disaster risk reduction, enabling them to engage with PDCs. This work was carried out in two provinces, Tafea and Sanma. Knowledge-sharing events were organised with the Protection Clusters in Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

What did the project achieve?

The project trained 85 women and girls, 40 men and boys and had 88,944 indirect beneficiaries. But the project also had a deeper impact. Prior to the project, women and girls in Tafea and Sanma had limited capacity to participate in disaster preparedness and response, were unaware of the concepts of gender and protection, the work of the Gender and Protection Cluster was not well understood and integrating a gender lens into post-disaster assessments was not common practice at the national, provincial or community level.

Pre- and post-training evaluations suggest that the project has increased participants’ knowledge about gender and protection in emergencies, and their capacity to participate in preparedness activities. According to the Gender Equality Project Manager at CARE Vanuatu: ‘One of the most visible impacts was seeing the light bulbs turn on for community members when we unpacked gender and protection and ran them through the simulations. The dawning of the realization that different members of the community have differentiated needs, and that we need to think about these differentiated needs for disaster planning’. Training and community development work has increased capacity among women and girls from Sanma and Tafea provinces, provincial government and national CSOs, and given them the confidence and skills to participate in emergency preparedness and response efforts. All members of participating CDCCCs, PDCs and national CSOs developed an increased ability to integrate a gender lens into post-disaster assessments and subsequent analysis.

A key lesson from the community-embedded work was the need to engage men in the training to ensure that women’s involvement in disaster management would be championed: although the focus of the project was empowering women, it was clear that men, as advocates of women’s participation, would be critical. The project also contributed to increased knowledge about the role of the Gender and Protection Cluster, and how it fits within the national humanitarian system, and increased ownership of the Cluster among local CSOs, as well as their willingness to engage as part of the Cluster.

Taken together, the Localization Project contributed to disaster risk reduction on three levels: at the community level, by train- ing and empowering women and girls; at the provincial level, through training and capacity development; and at the national level, through engagement of local CSOs and government ministries. However, while the project was well-received and contributed to national, provincial and community priorities, it also faced numerous challenges. One key challenge was a series of disasters over the course of the project, which required implementing partners to refocus on preparedness and engagement in the national emergency response. Two months into the project, a volcano on Ambae Island erupted. Continued eruptions and high levels of volcanic activity led the government to declare a state of emergency, first in September–December 2017 and then from April to November 2018. During this period, the government ordered the full and mandatory evacuation of the population of the island. Both implementing partners, the four CSOs that were part of the project’s mentoring programme and members of the Gender and Protection Cluster were all involved in the relocation process. Another eruption in December 2018, this time on Ambrym Island, triggered an earthquake that required response efforts. Vanuatu was also affected by cyclones and a tsunami over the implementation period.

Although unintentional, the project was well-timed to meet the needs of people affected by the developing humanitarian crisis. The four CSOs that underwent mentoring were able to put their new skills and knowledge to the test in the field almost immediately. Project implementers also noted stronger relationships between national government and CSO partners. One government official said that ‘The Localization Project has facilitated stronger collaboration between government and cluster members and strengthened existing relationships. I believe through this fostering of strong relationships the project has allowed for longer-term programming in the Ambae response that the government would not have been able to shoulder alone’. Being able to support government efforts during the response also increased the visibility of the Gender and Protection Cluster, and gender and protection issues nationally. The sentiment of the government official captures the critical nature of localising funding in high risk disaster regions and the need for funding to capacitate women and girls to strengthen disaster management and response operations.

Collaboration in action – Save and CARE project coordinators working together to implement community disaster management training. © Save the Children and CARE Vanuatu.

It is clear from the Vanuatu experience that WPHF funding has enabled multiplier effects that should help galvanise attention towards women’s participation in disaster risk reduction and response. The funds have contributed to relationship-building and facilitating an active response, while also developing internal capacity to respond to disasters among women and girls, and with male advocates. While the Localization Project has come to an end, its impacts will continue to shape the disaster risk landscape in Vanuatu. There is strong evidence that, with more funding for women and girls’ participation in disaster management and resilience, larger gains are possible.

Subhashni Raj is a Gender and Humanitarian Analyst in the UN Women – Fiji Multi Country Office. Brigitte Laboukly is a Project Manager with CARE Vanuatu’s Gender Equality Program. Shantony Moli is a Senior Project Officer with Save the Children.



Comments are available for logged in members only.