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In the late afternoon of 15 January, the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano in Tonga erupted violently in the South Pacific, sending a plume of ash thousands of feet into the air and triggering tsunami waves that crashed into coastal areas of Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa, along with several other low-lying Tongan islands. It is estimated that around 84 percent of the population, over 84,000 people, have been affected in the island groups of Tongatapu, 'Eua, Ha'apai, and Vava, the thick volcanic ash transforming the once vibrant Tongan landscape into a moonscape.

As soon as the ash settled, and before the runways were cleared, UNFPA Pacific, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, were on the ground, working with the Government of Tonga and partners to ensure that immediate response efforts prioritized the needs of affected women and girls. Volunteers from the Tonga Family Health Association distributed more than 250 dignity kits, containing basic health and hygiene items such as soap, sanitary napkins and underwear in Kanokupolu village, on the main island of Tongatapu – critical items for women and girls so easily overlooked in a disaster response.

Working with the Australian Government, more than 1,520 dignity and 400 clean delivery kits have arrived in Tonga aboard the HMAS Adelaide. UNFPA Pacific has been able to respond so rapidly as it maintains prepositioned, essential life-saving supplies at its regional hub in Brisbane. 

“Limited access to reproductive health services puts the lives of many women and newborns at high risk when disaster strikes,” said Jennifer Butler, Director and Representative of UNFPA Pacific. “With the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, we’ve been able to move quickly to ensure that women and girls’ reproductive health needs are at the front and centre of the humanitarian response in Tonga.”

With access to safe water challenging, and damage to infrastructure, including health facilities, still being assessed, the kits will support the reproductive health needs of more than 2,000 women. Essential equipment, medicines and supplies for 10 midwives will make childbirth safer for the 400 pregnant women who are expected to deliver in the next three to six months, while hygiene and sanitary supplies will ensure women and girls can take an active part in the rebuilding of their communities.

With the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s support, the prepositioning of essential reproductive health supplies means that UNFPA Pacific is better prepared to respond faster and more efficiently across the disaster-prone Pacific region. This ensures that access to life-saving reproductive health services and supplies are restored in the immediate aftermath of a crisis and continue throughout the humanitarian emergency response.