"You must invest in us, listen to us, and we will tell you what works for us:" MECCA
M-POWER in conversation with ActionAid's Flora Vanu

Words by Life at MECCA M-POWER
Thursday 14 December 2023

If Ni-Vanuatu woman Flora Vano isn’t on your radar, then MECCA M-POWER wants to change that ASAP.

In addition to leading ActionAid’s Country Office in Vanuatu, Flora is an experienced humanitarian, empowering the women across her community and region to claim their agency, self-determination, and power.

Flora noted that as a young woman growing up in Vanuatu, she had “always noticed - and felt, inequality.” “People would have meetings [in the local community] and women were not involved. There was negativity when women were involved in decision-making,” she says. As a daughter in her family, she knew that because of her gender, “a lot of things wouldn’t be passed down to me.”

Witnessing the exclusion of women from decision-making and the structural inequalities in the patriarchal society when growing up drove Flora to become a gender equality advocate and humanitarian. “If I have to help people - I’ll do it to my full potential,” she says.

“Inequality was embedded in us from childhood.”

That inequality from her childhood continues to be reflected and amplified at the highest levels. There’s the fact that women continue to be underrepresented in Vanuatu’s Parliament. Flora points to Julia King as the only woman in Parliament, amidst 51 men. Flora is frustrated that the government is “always talking on our behalf. We hear the words ‘gender inequality’ being said, but if we want to reach gender equality, we need more people in that space - the decision-making space.”

Vanuatu is one of the most at risk countries in the world for climate disasters ... [this] will only exacerbate existing gender inequalities.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Harold, Cyclone Lola, and the twin cyclones in March 2023, Flora has been working on upskilling women to be able to respond to emergencies. Vanuatu is one of the most at risk countries in the world for climate disasters, and for Ni Vanuatu women, the climate crisis will only exacerbate existing gender inequalities. So any progress that can be made is a huge deal and a big stride forward.

In a society where it is estimated that 60% of women aged 15-49 have experienced physical or sexual violence, investing in women’s leadership in disaster response and resilience is vital. “We must amplify the voices and prioritise the needs of Ni-Vanuatu women. You must invest in us, listen to us, and we will tell you what works for us,” says Flora.

Ensuring that responses to cyclones and other disasters are women-led is critical, she says. She uses the dignity kits as an example - “they [women and girls] tell us what they need, and we deliver. They told us they wanted slippers, pads - they told us what they wanted, and we went and curated it. It transforms their life, and how they are thinking and working.” The needs of women and girls in emergency responses have often been an afterthought for large humanitarian organisations and governments. Flora is working hard to ensure that the needs of women and girls - and particularly those with disabilities, are front and centre.

Doing this, however, has not always been easy. Flora notes that when working with some communities, they have received backlash due to patriarchal values still being deeply embedded. “They would tell us to not wear a dress, but to wear pants. They’d also talk to our driver, and not us. You can see the patriarchy clearly.” It’s a battle that she’s willing to tackle.

Flora has a busy week ahead. She’s off to COP28 in Dubai, which is kicking off this week. She’s joining the Vanuatu delegation, and says it’s “important that women are included in this space.” Her priority when at COP is to stop new investment in fossil fuels, and getting world leaders to understand the ramifications.

“We need a miracle,” she says.