The Hidden Power and Vulnerability of Women in Disasters

Photo credit: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2020

As Internal Women’s Day was celebrated last week, today’s post reflects on the increase of violence against women and gender minorities during disasters. These events, whether natural hazards or armed conflicts, disproportionally impact women and people of non-binary gender and tend to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. This happens all the more in places where equal rights and protection for women and LGBTQIA+ people are challenged, but is also present in the context of Germany. Although women frequently take a leading role in care services, prevention of disasters, and re-building entire communities after a disaster hits, women continue to be subjected to structural violence and abuse of power. During disasters, there are more stressors that can spark violence in the form of trauma, mental health issues, and financial insecurity. The violence is primarily physical, psychological, and sexual, but the consequences can also be forced early marriage and financial dependencies because of the induced lack of resources. In addition, there is often a worsening of existing drivers contributing to gender disparities that can be observed. Social and gender inequalities tend to increase, and the lack of female representation and inclusion typically becomes greater. These experiences are not individual, they are systemic. Resources to help women in these contexts are scarce. A software tool such as Homa Reto can help people of discriminated gender to organize safe spaces and support groups, as well as share other resources to support their communities. Homa Reto’s core mission is to use data-driven innovations to combat violence and discrimination in global disaster risk structures.

Woman helps during disaster response (Photo by: Denis Onyodi: IFRC/DRK/Climate Centre)

The first type of violence that women experience during disasters is domestic violence. Domestic violence contributes to the vulnerability of women as women in violent relationships are less visibly at risk than poor women, refugees, single mothers, and senior or disabled women during these events. Yet, violence in intimate relations impacts as many as 60 percent of women in parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and in the event of widespread damage, barriers to reporting domestic violence increase. Besides, in the temporary camps that are set up as an answer to the emergency, problems of domestic and sexual violence are often identified. Housing shortages are also restricting women’s ability to leave violent relationships. One example where this increase in domestic violence was reported was in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka. Researchers found that some women were battered because they disputed their husband’s use of tsunami relief funds, or they were blamed by them for the deaths of their children. At Homa Reto we put safety and communication first to build inclusive networks that are attentive to the issues of domestic violence.

Disaster-displaced women are also more at risk of sexual assault. In 1989 after the Loma Prieta quake in the San Francisco Bay Area, authorities stated that reported sexual assault rose by 300%. This can be explained by the fact that crowded evacuation shelters expose these populations to an increased risk of sexual assault. Registered sex offenders and families are sometimes placed in the same building, which creates a particularly dangerous situation. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was reported that almost a third of instances of sexual assault occurred in evacuation shelters. Arguably, the vulnerability of women is a result of structural violence and the absence of resources to transform exclusionary practices that have been normalized in patriarchal societies. Instead of letting women carry the responsibility for care, it is necessary to provide help and resources that address structural violence. Non-binary, transgender and other members of the LGBTQIA+ community are also highly vulnerable to numerous forms of violence. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, LGBTQIA+ people in evacuation and recovery shelters faced verbal, physical, and sexual violence and were frequently denied recovery services by faith-based organizations. These shelters also predominantly assume gender binary norms in their registration form and their washrooms, which exacerbates the frequency of violent experiences by people who do not comply with binary gender norms.

Mother and daughter. (Canadian Red Cross, 2012)

The increase of violence against women during emergency situations is also a rising concern since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The 2 million people, primarily women, and children having fled the country find themselves facing increased risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse. While the mobilization of volunteers to help Ukrainian refugees is encouraging, some women end up having to get in a stranger’s car or stay in a house with someone unknown, which creates obvious risks. For women of color or LGBTQIA+, the situation can be even more difficult, as reports of racism and transphobia at the borders are amounting, leaving people stuck for days in transit places with no access to toilet or shower facilities and in sub-zero temperatures. For those who remain in Ukraine, the disruption of essential services, such as medical and social services, puts women at greater risk in situations of sexual violence. The medical services, already overwhelmed by the emergency, often do not meet the needs of survivors of violence, and where services are available, there is often a lack of privacy for women. One way to ensure the specific needs and vulnerabilities of women is by consulting local women’s organizations in Ukraine when coordinating the international humanitarian response. Relying on local knowledge, skills and networks ensure that the particular needs of women are taken into account. Homa Reto intends to make the expertise of local organizations visible and transform structures of violence by organizing safe spaces, dialogue, and mutual support. We not only want to prevent violence against women and gender minorities affected by disasters, but we also want to celebrate the contribution of diversity and vulnerability in envisioning a sustainable future.

Author: Suzon Mazataud

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