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On the 9th day of 16 days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), the Vanuatu Ministry of Health supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has launched three key documents, renewing its commitment to the sexual and reproductive health and rights.

These documents directly respond to and address sexual and reproductive health and rights, including the health sector’s role in the response to gender-based violence.

They include a Health Facility Readiness & Service Availability (HFRSA) assessment report, a the Reproductive, Maternal, Child, New-born, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH) Policy, and the new Strategy and Implementation Plan and a Standard Operating Procedures guidance for health workers for the clinical management of rape, sexual violence and Gender-Based Violence (GBV). These are very important documents that contribute to ensuring Vanuatu families have access to quality, and equitable and responsive health services.

The HFRSA report funded by the UNFPA Pacific Transformative Agenda funded by the Australian Government which provides a national picture of the health sector from a nationwide assessment of public and private facilities, focusing on sexual and reproductive health services. The assessment measured key service details, including the availability of trained staff, key guidelines, equipment, and medications to provide essential services to the people of Vanuatu. The services assessed included family planning, antenatal and postnatal care, childbirth, sexual health services, and health system support to survivors of gender-based violence.

Significant gaps and opportunities for impact were identified across the health system, which informed the new Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health policy, strategy and implementation plan of the Ministry of Health, and informs system and capacity development and investment at national, provincial and facility levels.

The RMNCAH Policy, Strategy and Implementation Plan again funded by the Australian Government responds to the Society Pillar 3 of the National Sustainable Development Plan and Health Sector Strategy to support the achievement of a healthy, prosperous, and sustainable Vanuatu in which all people, especially women, children, young people, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups, and those living in rural areas, enjoy a high quality of physical, mental, spiritual and social well-being. The policy addresses the provision of equitable access to affordable, quality health care throughout a person's life-cycle, and their autonomy to make informed decisions about sexual and reproductive health, birth-spacing, and health-protecting behaviors. This policy provides a roadmap of priorities to improve systems, services, and practices to guide development and investment in the health of families and individuals across Vanuatu.

In the first steps of implementation of the RMNCAH Policy, Strategy, and Implementation Plan, the Ministry of Health has developed guidelines that specifically respond to the clinical management of rape and Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for health workers (SOP) supported by the Spotlight Initiative clarify the clinical care and referral processes between all stakeholders who support survivors of GBV and identify linkages between services provided by both the Government and Civil Society or Non-Governmental Organizations. The guidelines begin the process of ensuring health facilities can meet some of the minimum services for responding to GBV, which were recognised to have significant gaps in the HFRSA.

The Ambassador of the European Union for the Pacific and to Vanuatu, Sujiro Seam welcomed the development of Vanuatu’s first-ever National Standard Operating Procedures for the Clinical Management of Rape, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence.

Mr. Sujiro said that this important step could be taken thanks to the joint efforts of the European Union and the United Nations to provide political and financial support for the Spotlight Initiative in Vanuatu.

“Governments, civil society organizations, communities, and other partners work together in the framework of this program to promote gender equality, prevent violence against women and girls, and increase access to quality response services for survivors”, he said.

The European Union is strongly committed to gender equality, the empowerment of women of all ages, and the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls around the world.

Mr Sujiro commended the engagement of Vanuatu’s political leaders who have joined this global fight and are committed to preventing and eliminating all forms of violence and discrimination against women.

“Vanuatu’s National Standard Operating Procedures for the Clinical Management of Rape, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence are a great achievement and illustrate the engagement of Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health”, he said.

UNFPA Pacific Director and Representative Dr Jennifer Butler said, today the Vanuatu Government is releasing a visionary and change-making policy, strategy and implementation plan for Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health, showing a roadmap on how to improve the lives of women, families, children, young people, and persons with a disability to have a healthy future in Vanuatu. This is a huge credit to your Ministry to have taken such a thorough approach to improving lives of individuals and families across Vanuatu.

Dr Butler said that the impact on countries in the region will be significant, and will shape RMNCAH policies across the region, collectively transforming the rights and access to services for women and adolescent girls across the Pacific. Visionary policies, strategies and implementation plans are essential to positively change the trajectory of the lives of women and adolescent girls so they may live lives of dignity, with the autonomy to make informed decisions about sexual and reproductive health, birth-spacing and health protecting behaviours for families and individuals. It is inclusive, reaching those furthest left behind, and fully integrates the needs and support to persons with a disability, which is crucial to recognize today, on the International Day for Persons with a Disability. The RMNCAH policy work has been supported by Australian AID through the Transformative Agenda for Women and Adolescents.

"We are also launching the Health Facility Readiness and Service Availability Assessment (HFRSA), also supported as part of the Australian AID Transformative Agenda.These are being conducted across the region, again creating a pan Pacific approach and stimulating South- South Technical collaboration. We see from the HFRSA data being released today, as well as the census data, the health systems data, that there is much to do in order to achieve the policy goals, especially when there are setbacks such as in times of emergency, and also with the increasing number of young people approaching reproductive age"

We can already see that progress is continuing, with :

• Standard Operating Procedures for the Clinical Management of Rape, Sexual Violence and Gender-Based Violence (supported by the EU funded Spotlight Initiative). These GBV Guidelines are another huge advance for women in the Pacific region. They are a tool to guide health workers how to ensure survivors are cared for appropriately;

• the increasing of access for youth to family planning and to reduce adolescent pregnancy, achieved through specifying that adolescents can access family planning from the age of 13 as guidance to all facilities across the country; this is just remarkable and Vanuatu is leading the way;

• the family planning training to increase access to families and individuals to wider methods, especially critical in COVID times,

• and the multi-sector working with the youth and education sectors to support their planned roll out of Family Life Education following international standards.

Dr Jennifer concluded by saying that this is commendable in a time of such challenge. However, deeper work remains. Little progress can be made without investment.

The health system strengthening needs are critical to ensure sustained progress, the ability to meet targets, and to maximise the health of the population.

To achieve these targets there is an urgent need for increased investment in:

• qualified human resources, including midwives

• physical infrastructure.

• a strong supply chain to ensure that commodities reach the last mile

• improved access for persons with a disability

• services being accessible to adolescents and youth

• community outreach to where people are, beyond the four walls of health facilities.

This will require an increase in the health budget allocation and in the certainty of that funding. Investing in health – in essential services and human resources for health, including sexual and reproductive health. The fully funded and resourced the RMNCAH policy, strategy and implementation plan will positively impact impact the lives of families today, and the future of Vanuatu tomorrow.