Addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the Post-Disaster Environment

Current disaster research shows women, in the aggregate, tend to be more vulnerable than men both during and after disasters.  Much of the current disaster response literature identifies vulnerabilities such as economic opportunity and transportation access as gifts to be benevolently bestowed from the outside following a disaster. Once provided for, "empowerment" will have taken place.

It is inherent in the term "empower" that something is given unto another. From this attitude, pledges for economic cooperation and training are provided - all done after the fact. However, the run-up and ground work for the vulnerabilities existed long before the disaster. In some respects, the disaster itself may even represent a transformative moment to address these vulnerabilities going forward.

Unfortunately, all too often, the chaos and flux of a disaster generates the reverse impact, as inequalities of control uncover themselves. An example of such an occurrence is gender based violence, particularly rape. Post disaster cases abound and can be expected in their attempt, not by perpetrator but by setting: a cocktail of confusion, resentment, and opportunity.

Four recent examples include:

1) A study of Hurricane Katrina undertaken by the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, suggests that women as well as men can find themselves vulnerable to predatory behaviour. Playing into this are the design of many camps and temporary housing, overcrowding, confused communal living quarters, and the lack of ready police defense.

2) The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) released a preliminary report six months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita regarding sexual violence where the“47 reported cases of sexual assault can be viewed as a remarkably high rate of prevalence, especially given the fact that sexual violence is such a highly underreported crime, even during more optimal conditions for reporting.” With a telling caveat at the end of the report, the NSVRC noted that their findings did not reflect additional informally reported occurrences at all evacuee locations.

3) UNICEF, while reporting on the Kenyan post-election violence of December 2008, cited women in displacement camps telling of threats made in front of aid workers.

4) The lack of preparation for an entirely expected set of behaviours was discovered by International Organization for Migration Director General William Lacy Swing while touring camp Jean Marie Vincent in Haiti in June of this year. As the IOM expressed, “Tents and tarpaulin covered shelters provide little shelter for women and girls… [He] expressed deep concern at their vulnerability to sexual and gender based violence … where plastic sheeting provides no protection from a knife or razor.”

Too often, the response to the topic of rape has been just that, a response. Focusing on medical screenings and survivors’ tales allows others to know that they are not alone in being assailed. In addition, calls are often made for laws to be put in place laws which will stifle violent opportunists.

During a response, assailants themselves are often characterized by the media and others as "not being able to live up to societal roles," or "relieving stress through alcohol and narcotics" leading them towards acts of sexual and gender-based violence.

In many cases, excuses are made for the urgency of the moment, such as the need to evacuate from flooded or ravaged lands. But the “’tyranny of the urgent’” cannot be allowed to move individuals from one threat that is affecting both genders equally, to another which will affect one gender disproportionately.

If alarms can go off to warn of cholera outbreaks, rising waters, and unstable structures, then similar warning sirens must be sounded regarding predatory behavior. Dealing effectively with sexual and gender-based violence can and must be part of the disaster responder's tool kit.

A place to start would be training staff to note signs of predatory behaviour, correcting for housing issues which allow for increased tension, eliminating blind spots from police observance, and creating constructive means for communication which allow for opportunities to report threats, attempts and delivered violence. Disaster response and NGO staff could then work with grassroots organizations working on community disaster issues, where women hold more leadership roles and memberships.

Such a proactive approach supporting those displaced during moments of disaster would help foster an environment a culture where heinous acts of sexual and gender-based violence are not given an opportunity to manifest.

[Via: IOM, Maureen Fordham (published research), Alice Fothergill (published research), Shirley Laska et al (published research), National Sexual Violence Resource Center, New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, UNICEF]


The IOM has expressed deep concern for sexual and gender-based

violence in Haiti's Jean-Marie Vincent Camp. [Image: The]


For Further Reading:

National Sexual Violence Resource Center : []

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Rape Prevention and Education (RPE) Program []

Boston Area Rape Crisis Center []

Clinical management of rape survivors: Developing protocols for use with refugees and internally displaced persons (for qualified health-care providers): []

The author, J. Conrad, holds an MSc. in Violence, Conflict and Development from the School Of Oriental and African Studies where his field research focused on rape response mechanisms in South Africa; an M.A. from the University of New Hampshire in Political Science with an International Relations focus; and a Boston Area Rape Crisis Center First Responders: Responding to Sexual Assault Disclosures Certificate.  He has spent most of the last decade as an educator working with international students.