Fleeing her home at seven months pregnant was not what 30-year-old Mariel had planned for her family during last Christmas festivities.
But, as Super Typhoon Rai barrelled down on the small fishing village of Saint Bernard, in the Southern Leyte province of the Philippines, it was her only option.
According to her, “our house was gone, we could smell petrol fuel leaking from the fishing boats, and the wind was howling. I wanted to run to the mountains with my two young children.”
The third largest storm ever to hit the northern hemisphere, Rai demolished homes across the islands, splintering trees and forcing hundreds of thousands to run for their lives.
Nearly four months on, many people are still without stable housing or access to food or medical care: Most health facilities remain obliterated, others hanging on by a thread.
Health workers do not have clinics to work in, while contraceptive supplies and medical equipment are sorely lacking.
Executive Director of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr. Natalia Kanem reflected after meeting with some of the women and girls affected: “A record number of people around the world are displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance.
‘’Humanitarian crises don’t just leave communities upended, they also expose women and girls to greater levels of vulnerability. Disasters and conflict worsen gender inequalities, with women and girls paying the heaviest price.”
Providing sexual and reproductive health care can be dangerously jeopardized in a crisis setting, including prenatal and antenatal services, as infrastructure is destroyed and roads become impassable. Scarce if any access to health services leads to a rise in maternal and newborn deaths, spikes in sexual violence and, as a new UNFPA report shows, soaring rates of unintended pregnancies.
Increasingly anxious about giving birth in the midst of a disaster zone, Mariel’s hopes were lifted when she spotted an unusual vehicle in town.
“One day, a white truck was parked in the community, and someone told me they had health services there. I didn’t believe them, but eventually I went, and my worries were gone’’, she said, relieved at the arrival of skilled health staff and new medical equipment.
The white truck is a UNFPA-supported Women’s Health on Wheels vehicle, a mobile birthing facility deployed to hard-to-reach areas and during humanitarian emergencies.
The rapid response mobile units are the default set-up when basic emergency obstetric and newborn care services are disrupted.
Based in the centre of Saint Bernard, the truck has become a beacon of survival and hope for many of the vulnerable women and girls in the community.