Meet the incredible women protecting their communities in disaster zones

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Women meeting in Suva as part of Femlink’s first National Women’s Human Security Consultation to determine their priorities for the Cyclone Winston response and for the future. Image: Jeff Tan/Action Aid

An International Women’s Day message by Holly Miller.

I’m writing this from Fiji, where a 30-day State of Emergency continues following Tropical Cyclone Winston, which struck on the February 20, cutting a path of destruction across the island nation for two whole days.

The cyclone has wreaked havoc on Fijian communities. Thousands of people are still staying in evacuation centres and depend on relief distributions of food and water after the cyclone destroyed their homes.

I’m here with ActionAid Australia. We’re an international organisation working to ensure that women all over the world have access to their human rights, and we support women to fight for them when they have to. At ActionAid Australia, we specialise in protecting women’s rights in emergencies.

When a disaster strikes – when an earthquake hits and buildings fall to the ground, when great waves wipe out villages in a super typhoon, or when a cyclone hits, blowing communities’ homes and livelihoods away, we focus on how that disaster has specifically affected women.

Not forgotten
Part of our focus is ensuring that women’s specific needs are not forgotten in emergency situations. Things like including pads and tampons in relief packages. Things like making sure that pregnant women are cared for when they are staying in crowded evacuation centres.

Cyclone Winston ... women's disaster needs ignored. Image: iStock
Cyclone Winston … women’s disaster needs ignored. Image: iStock

This only happens, however, when women are listened to and sadly they are so often ignored. Ridiculous actually, because in any disaster it is always women who take responsibility for making sure that those around them are cared for. I’ve seen it time and time again.

-Partners-

After Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu last year, I spoke to a number of women who all said the same thing.

It was women who ran around their communities before the cyclone to make sure that people took shelter in safe structures. It was women who stockpiled food, and then made sure everybody got some when it had to be rationed out after all their crops had been blown away.

Here in Fiji it’s no different.

ActionAid is working in Fiji with local partner, FemLINK PACIFIC – a feminist media organisation. FemLINK has a network of women across Fiji who work together to ensure that women’s voices are heard, and their priorities are included when decisions are made by the government. Their campaign is called Women’s Weather Watch, focused on ensuring women have access to critical weather updates.

Last to leave
Since I’ve been here, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with the women from FemLINK’s team, and they’ve shared the same story. When a cyclone is on the way, women are the last to evacuate the house because they’re busy making sure their families are fully prepared for what is to come.

Despite this, in disasters past, women have normally been excluded from official preparedness and relief efforts. They have not been listened to, and consequently, their needs have not been met – and nor have the needs of their families and their communities.

So that’s why we’re here. ActionAid and FemLINK are working together to ensure that women have their say in this disaster. We’re supporting women to speak out on what it is they need, and what their community needs, and ensuring that their voices are heard loud and clear.

This International Women’s Day, we’re standing in solidarity with the women in affected communities in Fiji. We’re celebrating their strength and resilience, and we’re asking Australians to stand with us, as we stand behind them and amplify the call to step up for gender equality.

And stand with us as we speak up to convince our leaders to repair the Australian Aid budget and stop the government from cutting aid to its lowest ever if the their scheduled A$224 million cut (on top of the A$11.3 billion that has already been cut) goes ahead this year.

Holly Miller is a spokesperson for ActionAid Australia.

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