One month has passed since a magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck the Southern Highlands of PNG (26 Feb), killing around 125 people and causing mass destruction to the remote region. Aftershocks and heavy rains have caused destructive landslides that have wiped out villages and left thousands without access to food, water, and shelter. Today, disaster relief operations are still plagued by a number of logistical and security challenges as entire communities remain cut off from vital assistance.
There has been extensive damage to infrastructure, homes and farmland, and the challenges faced by the PNG government, private sector aid companies, and foreign governments are enormous. The mountainous landscape and remote nature of the region has made relief efforts a logistical nightmare as major roads remain blocked. The most badly affected communities are facing food and medical supply shortages, as helicopters remain the only way in which to reach them. Additionally, some aid assistance has been suspended due to increasing levels of violence as criminals “capitalize on quake disorder.” PNG Police Commissioner Gari Baki claims that these criminals are taking advantage of the disaster to create fear in the community. “They’re using this as an opportunity, once the disaster is on, to challenge the police in this regard,” he said.
This natural disaster has received relatively little media coverage, meaning that donations have fallen short and those most vulnerable are likely to feel the effects of the earthquake for years to come. Once the immediate challenges of the earthquake have been addressed, women and children are likely to be incredibly vulnerable post-disaster. Women take on more unpaid caring roles after an emergency and as a result their economic capacity becomes diminished. According to UN Women, instances of domestic and sexual violence increase in the aftermath of natural disasters due to “the inability to provide protection for women, children and vulnerable groups during a disaster, and compounded by the additional pressures on families.” PNG is already an extremely dangerous place to be a woman, with the “majority” of women experiencing sexual assault at some point in their life, according to the Human Rights Watch.
Children, too, are incredibly vulnerable in the aftermath of a disaster and it has already been suggested that thousands of children will not have access to education for up to a year. Save the Children’s Jennifer El-Sibai has reinforced the importance of focusing on getting children back to school as soon as possible. “A lot of the attention has been on life-saving assistance, but the need to plan for education and what happens next has to happen now,” she said. There are concerns from aid workers in the region that an entire “generation” of children will miss out on receiving an education, as many families cannot afford to relocate their children to other schools.
As Australia’s largest beneficiaries, PNG initially pledged AUD $200,000 in disaster relief assistance. In a recent trip to PNG, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop took the opportunity to pledge an additional AUD $3.4 million in earthquake relief efforts, a move that many speculate to be a strategic attempt to maintain influence in the region as China’s investment in the Pacific continues to increase. Regardless of the intentions behind the increased aid, it is important that the assistance be used to help those most vulnerable. Australia has a commitment to direct 80 percent of its foreign aid budget towards effectively addressing gender issues. This strategic target was missed by 2 percent, according to a report recently released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Moving forward, it is important that Australia and PNG continue to invest in empowering women by focusing on supporting their involvement in disaster planning and response initiatives.
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