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Mendi, Papua New Guinea – When a devastating 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck the remote Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea on February 26, Julian Ako, just 18 years old, was heavily pregnant with her third child.

Her home, like many others near the earthquake’s epicentre, was severely damaged.

The family emerged unscathed, but a landslide contaminated their sole nearby source of safe drinking water, and with strong aftershocks, newly impassable roads and vital services disrupted, providing for her two young children was tough in the aftermath.

February’s earthquake, perhaps one of the most under-reported natural catastrophes so far this year, has affected over half a million people, with over 270,000 still in need of vital aid as of April 2018.

Poor infrastructure makes much of this impoverished country hard to access at the best of times, and landslides and sporadic unrest in certain areas since the earthquake has made reaching the beleaguered population with crucial aid even harder.

Similarly, Papua New Guinea lacks sufficient health facilities across the country generally, and the earthquake and its aftershocks have put many crucial health stations out of action.

And for Julian, as the birth of her third child approached, the aftermath of the earthquake did not get easier.

“When my contractions started, the local nurse told me she couldn’t help, and sent me off to Pimaga hospital to give birth,” explains Julian, referring to a larger facility that had already received safe birthing kits from UNFPA – the United Nations Population Fund.

Early next morning, after hours of exhausting labour, midwives found that Julian's baby was afflicted with hydrocephalus, a condition that led to the baby’s death amid the birthing process, and put Julian’s own life in serious jeopardy.

Yet, thanks to a swift referral made by a midwife from Papua New Guinea’s Family Health Association and a reproductive health officer from UNFPA, Julian was quickly airlifted to the larger, better-equipped Mendi provincial hospital, where her life was saved.

A day later, Julian’s mother, sitting by Julian’s bedside, expressed sorrow at the loss of her grandchild, but heartfelt gratitude for the life of her daughter. “I’m very happy for the help you’ve provided. Thank you so very much,” she told UNFPA.

Julian (left) with her mother (centre) and UNFPA officer Debbie Kupesan (right) after Julian's life-saving surgery. Photo: UNFPA

Health, safety and dignity

As part of a government-led joint international and United Nations emergency response, UNFPA has been targeting the estimated 35,000 women of reproductive age affected by the earthquake and the approximately 3,200 pregnant women, like Julian, who were caught up in the disaster.

With support from Australia, the government has so far distributed around 700 of UNFPA’s trademark Dignity Kits to women and girls in the worst-hit areas, whilst 500 have been prepositioned in the hard-hit province of Hela.

The Dignity Kits contain vital health, hygiene and safety products to meet the specific needs of women and girls; many of the kits were dispatched quickly through a joint Asia-Pacific prepositioning initiative between the government of Australia and UNFPA.

UNFPA has also distributed reproductive health kits in some of the worst affected areas containing clean delivery supplies, and supplies related to sexually transmitted infections and post-rape care.

In Papua New Guinea, rates of gender-based violence are typically high, and violence against women often spikes in emergencies. Working with government and partners, such as IPPF, UN Women and UNICEF, UNFPA is working to establish five Women Friendly Spaces in earthquake affected areas, where women and girls can seek services for gender-based violence, and receive counseling, awareness and support for referral services.

UNFPA staff have also delivered trainings on stress management, psychological first aid, and the Minimum Initial Service Package in sexual reproductive health and gender-based violence in Emergencies to humanitarian aid workers working in hard-hit communities..  

As for Julian, she’s now safe, recovering and looking to the future.

 “I’m happy to be alive,” she says. “I’m looking forward to getting back to my husband and children at home so we can get on with rebuilding our house and our gardens.”