Hanson's story: a multi-dimensional struggle and the importance of WASH during a global pandemic

Woman with a disability demonstrates difficulty in collecting water, sits on chair, filling up bottle from a large green tank

Hanson collecting water, demonstrating the challenges people with disabilities face when collecting water, especially without adequate access to appropriate assistive devices. For people with disabilities access to water and handwashing facilities is essential with the threat of COVID-19 to enable key preventative measures such as handwashing.

(Mike Esrom Kaun/World Vision Vanuatu)


For the people of Sanma Province, in Vanuatu’s north, 2020 is a year that will not be easily forgotten. It has turned out to be a year in which they have had to face dual crises - living through the harsh economic impact of COVID-19 and the widespread devastation of Tropical Cyclone Harold, a category five storm that struck Vanuatu on 5th April.

"Cyclone Harold was the scariest experience I have ever had in a storm,” recalls 64-year-old Hanson. "I feared for my life, for my child’s life, for my grandchildren’s life and for my home. If it was destroyed, how would I ever rebuild it?" 

In any crisis, it is women, children and vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities who are among those worst affected. Already in society, they are all too often marginalised, and the impacts of a crisis only exacerbate these issues further.


Hanson had one of her legs amputated some years ago and over the years, the house that she lives in has been modified to help her move around more easily for her daily activities. However, through the modifications, plumbing issues had surfaced, often causing her toilet to flood into her sleeping area, which is detrimental to her health.


Since Hanson's leg was amputated, work is no longer an option for her, as she was regularly bed ridden and moving around using conventional assistive devices was difficult for her due to loss of her physical strength. Another challenge for Hanson has been managing incontinence.


"The majority of us who have disabilities in Vanuatu are neglected and cannot get help because we are thought to be a burden, we are seen as people without any value and that we can’t contribute constructively to society.”


Through Hanson's experience, we gain a startling insight into the multi-dimensional challenges that are faced by people with a disability. Her struggle is not only to walk, but also in accessing safe water and sanitation facilities, maintaining her health and wellbeing, accessing employment and a regular income. Living in a developing country, Hanson also struggles to access the support and services she needs, that consider the different needs of people with a disability. These are just some of the ways in which her struggle is compounded, now overlay this experience with a global pandemic and a category five cyclone on her doorstep.


Sadly, Hanson’s experiences are not unique. Hearing and understanding Hanson's experience and that of other vulnerable people was one of the aims of our partner, World Vision's 'Water, Women and Disability' study.


The study, conducted among 55,000 people in Sanma and Torba provinces investigated access to, and experience of, water and sanitation, menstrual hygiene management and incontinence amongst people with disabilities, alongside the situation of people without disabilities and in particular women.


The study found that people with disabilities have less hygienic, convenient or dignified access to sanitation facilities at home compared with people without disabilities. A third of people with disabilities found it difficult to use the toilet without coming into contact with faeces or urine, while 10% of people with disabilities could not access water when they needed to, making them less able to easily access key COVID-19 prevention measures such as handwashing.


A COVID-19 response is a WASH response


When the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading across the globe, our partners were mobilising. Through their established Water for Women project, Laetem Dak Kona (light up the dark corners), World Vision Vanuatu was already improving access to hygiene and sanitation for people with disabilities like Hanson through improved and accessible latrines, and accessible handwashing stations in communities, 195 have been installed to date.


With support from Australia, World Vision moved quickly and worked collaboratively to pivot their project activities and working with caregivers to increase awareness of COVID-19 and prevention methods to reach an estimated 21,000 people, including people like Hanson, who is now able to practice handwashing with soap regularly so that she can protect herself from COVID-19!

"This has been a dream come true. I have just gone through one of the scariest experiences ever in my life and now I have a chance to live more healthily, especially in this time with the COVID-19 pandemic happening around us," shared a happy Hanson.



Quote tile that says 'This has been a dream come true. I have just gone through one of the scariest experiences ever in my life and now I have a chance to live more healthily'

Hanson demonstrates the daily challenges people with disabilities face to collect water.

For people with disabilities, access to water and handwashing facilities is essential with the threat of COVID-19, to enable key preventative measures such as handwashing.


Through Partnerships for Recovery, Australia is supporting COVID-19 work across the Pacific to secure our region’s health, wellbeing and stability in these challenging times. Through Water for Women, not only are we delivering safe, equitable and sustainable Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), we are also building, healthy, inclusive and resilient societies. 


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