27 March 2015
Cyclone Pam has caused mass devastation of the tiny island nation of Vanuatu. Diana Paul, 32, was evacuated from her home on Friday 20th March, the morning before the cyclone. When she and her husband returned the next day, their house was no longer there. You'd think the worst would be over, but violent attacks on women in the shelters mean that she is still fearing for her safety. Diana shares her story.
The cyclone blew my house away
When we got down to the river to where our house had been, we saw it had been blown away entirely. As soon as I saw it I felt a sick feeling in my stomach. The next day my husband had to go to New Zealand to work for seven months picking fruit. He had to go or we would have no money at all. So now I am left alone with my two children.
Since then we have been sleeping in an emergency shelter. We don’t have materials to rebuild, or money to buy them. Not knowing what will happen to my children keeps me awake at night.
Violent attacks in the shelters
To make it worse, the police have told us not to sleep too deeply anyway, because the shelters are not safe. There is no fencing, barely any lighting, and the doors don’t shut. I am afraid of intruders – we have heard stories of attacks on women in the streets by men with knives.
Even in normal times there are often physical fights. In my community of 200 people, I would say there is a fight once a month. For women this is normal. Half the women in Vanuatu have experienced sexual and physical violence from a partner and 60 per cent from a non-partner.
The last time my husband hit me it was with a wrench. When I saw him go to grab it from under the bed I screamed and cried. I was terrified. He hit me over the head with it and I bled and bled.
Stopping the violence is as critical as food
Since the cyclone women are even more vulnerable than usual. If we could stop the violence – the physical and the emotional violence - I would say that this is as critical as food and water for us women right now.
It is essential for us to build new houses as soon as possible to protect ourselves. We can work hard and we are strong. But we do not know how to build houses, so for this we need help.
It is terrible enough that women like Diana have lost their homes. But now they are living in daily dread of being attacked as well. We’re on the ground working with local women's groups to help them lead the disaster response, prevent violence and provide counselling for those who've been traumatised. As Diana's story shows, time is of the essence. Women urgently need somewhere safe to sleep at night.
Photos by Jeff Tan/ActionAid