The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.
Perseverance in the Face of Disaster
August 28, 2015
Relief for people with disabilities after Vanuatu cyclone
This article was originally published in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of Rights Now.
It was a remarkable and disturbing coincidence that Cyclone Pam struck the South Pacific just as the World Disaster Relief Conference in Sendai, Japan, kicked off this past March. Vanuatu — a small chain of islands subject to rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, changing climate patterns, and extreme weather — bore the brunt of the storm. In the wake of the cyclone, UUSC provided vital support to people living with disabilities, who face significant barriers in accessing disaster relief.
While the death toll remained low, approximately 90% of Vanuatu’s residents experienced severe damage to their homes, and many were forced out into the open air. Three-quarters of people living in Vanuatu, which is ranked 124 out of 187 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index, live in rural areas and on remote islands. Many lack quality primary education, basic health services, a regular and safe water supply, and reliable transport.
Given the lack of infrastructure and the catastrophic effect of the cyclone on local civil society organizations, UUSC’s Rights at Risk Program sprung into action to provide humanitarian assistance. After careful analysis and work with Oxfam Vanuatu staff on the ground, UUSC partnered with the Vanuatu Society for Disabled People (VSDP) to help disabled women and children break down barriers rights during this critical time. In Vanuatu, people with disabilities are often ignored and subject to multiple layers of discrimination; women are vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence, and children do not have access to a conventional education.
VSDP has been working with children and adults with disabilities for over 20 years, offering community- based rehabilitation and early intervention services for children in Port Vila and rural areas. After Cyclone Pam, the loss of the VSDP building severely disrupted their services at a critical time when children and women with disabilities were in the greatest need of support.
UUSC provided VSDP with an emergency grant within weeks of the disaster to ensure that they would remain operational. In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, VSPD reached 382 people with disabilities, including 172 women and 58 young girls, to assess their needs. VSDP has been serving as an information hub, feeding updates about needs to organizations coordinating nationwide relief efforts. VSDP has remained a powerful voice for disabled citizens to help them access materials like tarps, medicine, and food. They have also resumed early intervention classes in three communities to address the critical education gap for children with disabilities.
VSDP’s long-term goals include providing services to improve clients’ overall independence and community participation, addressing disaster preparedness policy, and developing stronger referral systems for educational, health, and other services.