Gender

Women facing climate change in Vanuatu

 This article is written by Mouna Chambon.

Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands, located in the southwest Pacific Ocean. Today climate change is the greatest challenge faced by Vanuatu as well as many other Small Island Developing States ( SIDs). According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) forecasts, temperatures will increase by 1.2 ° C by 2040 compared to 1995 levels[1].

Sea-level rise will accelerate as well as ocean acidification, which could damage up to 80% of the coral reefs within the next 20 years. The intensity and frequency of natural hazards such as Cyclone Pam which devastated the country in March 2015 will also increase. All of these changes will have significant implications for Vanuatu’s society and economy. Moreover, climate change magnifies existing inequalities and bolsters the disparities between women and men.

 

 

 

Physical map of Vanuatu: Tanna, Espiritu Santo and Efate Island.

Actually, women are more affected than men by climate change, not really because they are more vulnerable but rather because they are not involved in decision-making processes at all level, from local to national. For instance, very simple things like the location of a water tank are decided by men and do not benefit systematically women in terms of distance from home. Yet, traditional roles that are generally assigned to women can also create opportunities for their empowerment as illustrated by the Women’s Forum in Tanna in 2015.

Tanna is one of the five volcanic islands of Vanuatu. Just after the cyclone Pam stroke the island, people had to cope with the absence of food since all their crops were totally destroyed. Besides food, building new houses was another critical issue since almost all houses of Tanna were demolished by the cyclone. After Pam, people found shelter under coconut palm leaves. One year after the cyclone, they were still living in temporary houses all over the island because building materials as well as financial support were lacking. Just like on the other islands, women of Tanna are living in a very patriarchal society. There are no shared responsibilities between husband and wife. In addition, women’s access to education is a major concern : their literacy rate is among the lowest of the Archipelago. As a result, women often do not understand governmental warnings that they receive by text messages. They are thus less prepared than their husbands for facing cyclones.

If women were the most impacted by cyclone Pam in Tanna, they also became the most engaged to that issue. Only few days after the cyclone, a women forum called Women I toktok together was organized in Isangel, the Provincial headquarters. In total 800 women and young girls from all around the Island came and stayed under blue tents for three days. These tents were representing a “safe place for women”. The purpose of this forum, which was organized by the NGO ActionAid, was to draw attention to specific issues and problem faced by women in regions that were affected by the cyclone. This unique opportunity allowed women to exchange and share experience about cross-cutting issues such as political engagement of women, education of girls, school fees or sanitation. At the end of these 3 days, women of Tanna came back to their respective communities with new priorities. This experience significantly contributed to strengthen women’s network and organization on the Island.

To go further: UNDP (2013). Integrating Gender in Disaster Management in Small Island Developing States: A Guide.
UN Women Fiji(2014). Climate change, gender and food security in the pacific

About the author: Mouna Chambon is a Master student in Geopolitics at La Sorbonne University, Paris. As part of her Master course, she conducted a research project on the impact of climate change on women in Vanuatu. This experience aroused her interest in that research area. Subsequently, she joined CliMates and launched the project “Gender and climate change “ in January 2017. She speaks French, English, German and Italian. (For further questions: mouna.chambon@gmail.com)

[1] UNDP. 2014. Risk Governance Assessment Report: Strengthening Climate and Disaster Risk Governance in Vanuatu.

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