By Xerxes Arcenal, Senior Program Officer, SPRINT Initiative, International Planned Parenthood Federation
Melaia Wagavou was two months pregnant with her first child when Cyclone Winston hit her village in Natunuku, Ba Province, in Fiji’s northern division, on 20 February 2016. She was with her husband in their extended family home when a curfew was announced on the radio: “That night, everything was calm. The wind began to rage as it was getting dark. It got stronger by the hour and I did not know what to do but cry and hope that I would survive.”
The storm worsened and eventually loosened one of the structural beams in the house. It fell and struck Melaia. In desperation, she moved from room to room, finally taking shelter under her aunt’s bed where she remained until the storm eased. By this stage, the roof of the house was entirely falling apart. “When it got calmer, my family and I took refuge in my brother-in-law’s car,” she said.
Our International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) team arrived in Melaia’s village two days after the cyclone. An IPPF team doctor assessed the health of her unborn baby and discovered that her pregnancy thankfully wasn’t affected when she was hit by the beam. But she was still terrified and her home was destroyed.
As part of our response to Cyclone Winston, we distributed dignity kits to expecting and breastfeeding mothers with necessities, including a sulu (a sarong), underwear, rubber thongs, a whistle, soap, and sanitary pads. We handed out bed-nets to protect against the high risk of Dengue Fever and Zika Virus. We also held information sessions on pre- and post-natal health for other traumatised young women and mothers in affected villages.
In the wake of disasters like Cyclone Winston, women and girls are often the most vulnerable. Natural disaster expose them to numerous health and psychosocial risks, yet sexual and reproductive health and rights are often under-prioritised and under-resourced in responses to humanitarian crises.
Australia has made it a priority to ensure these issues are included in humanitarian response. They have partnered with IPPF since 2007 to deliver the Sexual and Reproductive Health Program in Crisis and Post-Crisis Situations (SPRINT). Last week, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced a further $9.5 million to assist the roll out of SPRINT’s third phase. These funds will help us provide crucial care and support to women and girls who desperately need it.
A key focus of the SPRINT initiative is reaching pregnant and breastfeeding women. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that one in five women of reproductive age in crises will be pregnant. As you can imagine, accessing vital obstetrics care during or after a crisis is extremely difficult, let alone basic pre-natal care. Women often have to go into labour or nurse newborns in chaotic conditions, risking pre- and post-natal complications and illness.
Overall, the SPRINT response following Cyclone Winston reached more than 11,000 beneficiaries, spanning 37 villages and settlements in Fiji’s northern and western divisions. Of this group, over 1,000 were pregnant or breastfeeding women like Melaia.
According to Melaia, contact with the IPPF Reproductive Health Medical Mission was a double blessing: she was able to access essential clinical care right near her home, and received much-needed supplies to assist with the remainder of her pregnancy.
Thanks to the continuing support of the Australian Government for the SPRINT initiative, IPPF will keep up this vital work – reaching those in need with basic care and supplies during the most vulnerable moments of their lives.
Xerxes Arcenal (“Tet”) is Senior Program Officer for the SPRINT initiative delivered by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in East and South-East Asia and the Oceania Region. Based in Kuala Lumpur, Tet frequently travels to crisis-affected areas to support the SPRINT initiative in responding to disasters in collaboration with local stakeholders. Tet has been working with IPPF since 2009, and was part of the SPRINT response team in Fiji following Cyclone Winston.