Forces of Nature

Vanuatu's Women Rise to Resilience
By USAID Publications

Mt. Yasur Volcano—about 1,000 miles east of Australia on Vanuatu’s Tanna island—has been erupting for over 800 years. People here are accustomed to the volcano’s rumblings. But sometimes, the volcano emits ash upon surrounding villages, harming air quality and vegetation, and damaging crops.

Elsie Nambri, a teacher and the wife of the village chief of Ikurup on Tanna, remembers the widespread hunger that follows. “We always watch for black clouds that signal ash rain,” she said.


Cyclones, droughts and earthquakes also batter Vanuatu. The country—comprised of over 80 islands—is more vulnerable to natural disasters than any country in the world.

In 2015, Tropical Cyclone Pam decimated 94 percent of Tanna’s crops and destroyed fishing boats and people’s homes. The U.S. Government responded with food, emergency relief supplies and shelter materials, and worked with humanitarian organizations to ensure there was clean water and adequate sanitation in evacuation shelters.



Last year, USAID and CARE International in Vanuatu worked together to strengthen disaster resilience in Tanna and three other islands, so they can bounce back faster from natural disasters and rely less on foreign aid.

Kastom (traditional culture) in rural areas of Vanuatu, however, allows only male village chiefs to control public resources, excluding women from decision-making even at the household level. This often leaves women unable to effectively respond to, or recover from, disasters on their own. 


To address this, USAID helped facilitate gender training, where communities discussed the traditional roles of men, women, children, older persons and people living with disabilities, and how disasters affect them.

“The gender division before meant that women had lots of work to do at home, and we men hadn’t realized it before. We now make sure to see that everyone’s needs are met.”
-George from Ikwarmanu, following a separate training conducted by CARE

This more inclusive view has made way for women’s equal participation in community decision-making to help secure the island’s increasingly unpredictable future.



With men accepting women’s roles in the community, and the women eager to contribute, USAID and CARE established demonstration gardens on four islands to teach people farming techniques to protect and diversify food sources.

The women learned how to compost, diversify crops and harvest water. They planted more disease- and drought-resistant varieties of commonly grown crops like yam, taro, sweet potato, cabbage, beans, tomato and lettuce. The project also introduced solar dryers to preserve food.

These sustainable farming practices help families feed themselves and prepare for drought, cyclones and other natural disasters that could kill crops.




Drawing on her newfound confidence and influence, Elsie convinced her husband to allot some land for gardening. Elsie led a group of women in planting peanuts, sweet potatoes and cassavas.

“We learned how to plant smart,” said Elsie. “It’s good for the women to be responsible for our garden.”

Impressed with the women’s initial harvest, Elsie’s husband allotted more land to grow the community garden.


Building on the gender training, USAID and CARE established local committees in each partner community for preparing for and responding to disasters. Women were elected into over half of the 160 leadership positions —a landmark move for a nation that has low female representation in government.

USAID supplied the committees with radios and loudspeakers to broadcast early warnings of floods and cyclones, and conduct emergency drills.

“Before, men didn’t want to listen to me. People look up to me now.”
-Selina David, vice chair of her committee in Lowenata village on Tanna.


Last May, Tropical Cyclone Donna hit Vanuatu. Disaster committees on Tanna disseminated early warnings with loud speakers. The committees mobilized communities to move boats, tie down roofs and stockpile food and water. They also relayed information about their situation to the provincial and national governments.

While the cyclone did not directly hit Tanna, this was the first time ever that the island prepared with concerted and inclusive measures.

“This is our land, our ancestors’ land,” said Elsie. “Just as we have learned to live with Mount Yasur, I feel we are now ready for anything.”



Photos credits: Matt Abbott and Dorelyn Jose for USAID; Mark Chew and Sam Fender for CARE-Vanuatu.

This photo essay was originally posted on the USAID Publications Page on Exposure.

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Coastal, Disaster Risk Management, Gender and Social Inclusion, Resilience

USAID Publications

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