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Women central to disaster response

Never before in the 70 years of the United Nations has it managed a gathering of about 9000 participants from 173 member states, including 55 heads of states and governments, thousands of non-government organisations and hundreds of private sector representatives.

The meeting closed on May 24 with stakeholders agreeing to address humanitarian crises by essentially reducing the need for humanitarian action through preventative measures ie beefing up resilience of communities and societies.

The summit hosted leaders segments, seven high-level roundtables, 15 special sessions, 132 side events and two days of plenary from which the consensus was for a fundamental new way of addressing the increasing humanitarian crisis, which for the Pacific will occur more in both intensity and frequency thanks to the impact of global warming.

Aid agencies and donor governments agreed to a "grand bargain" that will ideally see more resources getting into the hands of people who need them, at both local and national level, while participants agreed to five core responsibilities to guide a collective response for humanity.

United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said in his summary: "A new and coherent approach is required based on addressing root causes, increasing political diplomacy for prevention and conflict resolution, and bringing humanitarian, development and peace-building efforts together."

The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, was at the summit with a very simple message: that to uphold the agenda for humanity, women, adolescent girls and young people had to be at the core of humanitarian response.

"It is time to put women, adolescent girls and young people at the centre of humanitarian action. It is time to meet their needs and full participation and leadership as first responders," Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA executive director told participants at the member states and stakeholders' announcements.

Dr Osotimehin spoke of the increased risk women and adolescent girls faced in humanitarian crisis settings, where sexual violence could mean having to birth a child of rape in total chaos, having to consider impossible choices in the midst of traumatic experiences that sometimes resulted in contracting HIV.

"Together we need to do more to protect their rights, their safety and guarantee their dignity," Dr Osotimehin said. "We at UNFPA remain firmly committed to achieving universal sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as governments have agreed to in the 2030 agenda."

The Asia-Pacific region is the most disaster-prone region in the world. Four Pacific Island Countries remain in the top 10 most at risk countries worldwide ranking - Papua New Guinea (10), Solomon Islands (6), Tonga (3) and Vanuatu (1).

One of the core responsibilities WHS participants will now use to frame their humanitarian crisis preparedness is, "Leave no one behind". Participants responded to calls at the summit for gender equality, women's empowerment and women's rights to become pillars of humanitarian action pledging among other things to "ensure that the rights to sexual and reproductive health care is fulfilled for all women and adolescent girls in crisis settings".

As first responders, it makes sense to invest in meeting unique needs of women and adolescent girls and young people. It is fundamental for a resilient and healthy population base critical for humanitarian response.

After the distribution of UNFPA dignity kits across areas which were worst-hit by Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston, a longer-term activity led by women for women and girls is the eight women-friendly spaces, working with the Government through the Ministry of Health and Medical Services and the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation and local partners.

Women-led for women and girls

Lanieta Tora would be the face you'd want to greet you when arriving at a place that claims to exist particularly for women, where you could have discussions or just vent without fear or prejudice, a women-friendly space (WFS).

She embodies that one aunt that we all have in the family who's cool enough to talk with about anything. Warm, welcoming and having the ability to speak the dialects of the various areas which are covered by her Nukuloa WFS.

The stocky 56-year-old has been a community worker all her life; both as a village nurse and as one of the leaders of her regional chapter of a national women's association, the Soqosoqo Vakamarama. Mrs Tora has had good practice, one can safely assume, with human interaction at all levels.

Mrs Tora was more than happy to represent her district as a community facilitator at the WFS. Now in semi-retirement mode, she had to attend a three-day orientation with the other 11 community facilitators.

"This has been great for the women in this area, especially those who have been coming to our centre.

"It has also been a learning curve for me. I had to learn how to do community profiling which allowed us to know first-hand what they considered their needs," she said.

Originally from an island off the coast of the Nadroga Province, Vatulele, Mrs Tora knows the surroundings of the Nukuloa WFS like the back of her hand, and it helps when you can jump between dialects and even Hindi.

"From those who attended on the first week, we knew there was interest. We went to villages and settlements informing them of the intentions, now more are coming as well from word of mouth.

"And when they come here, they have confidence when they see familiar faces so it is a really good idea getting women from the communities involved. It's a really good set-up with us supporting the midwife and the counsellors."

The WFS organises two-hour information sessions four days a week and the Fridays are either fun days where activities such as learning floral arrangements etc are organised as a chill-out session for women who visit the centre and WFS staff.

"This concept of women-friendly spaces is just one example of centralising women in a humanitarian response," Dr Laurent Zessler, UNFPA Pacific Director and Representative said.

"We can operationalise discussions at the WHS by introducing policies, for example, which will ensure women and youth are at tables of humanitarian response planning and decision-making."