How to protect women, girls after a disaster

Amid efforts to provide food, water, medicines, emergency shelter and sanitation to survivors of the historic Typhoon Haiyan that wreaked damage in the Philippines, development experts are also calling on relief agencies and government officials to ensure the security and well-being of women and girls. 

Elise Young, vice president of policy and government affairs at Women Thrive Worldwide, cautioned that "unless relief actors get it right, we will see an uptick in assaults against women and children" in areas affected by Haiyan.

In Haiti, for instance, sexual violence was a rampant problem at refugee camps even a year after the massive 2010 earthquake. In evacuation centers, the lack of inadequate lighting, accessible bathrooms, or locks on doors often lead to an increase in assaults. A breakdown in support systems is a contributing factor as well. With families and communities being separated, women may have to travel farther — alone — to search for food and water, endangering themselves in the process.

While international agencies are becoming increasingly aware of gender issues in the distribution of relief items, there are still cases where aid is distributed only to male heads of families, relief items are too heavy for women to carry, or where aid is distributed to women but they are vulnerable to being robbed on their way home, according to Dr. Elizabeth Ferris, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

Seema Manohar, Save the Children's emergency adolescent reproductive health specialist, noted that in emergencies, desperation drives families to seek alternative sources of income, and adolescent girls and women may have to engage in transactional sex or fall prey to human trafficking. Domestic violence is also likely to increase as frustration grows within the family unit and women and girls bear the brunt.

Emergency obstetric care services are often compromised in emergencies, to the detriment of women, she adds.

Of the 11.8 million people affected by the typhoon, an estimated 56,400 women between 15 and 49 years old are at risk of sexual violence. In the evacuation centers, around 2,500 women are at risk. Further, more than 200,000 pregnant and 135,000 lactating women need prenatal and postnatal care.

On top of the increased risk for gender-based violence, women who lost their husbands to disasters may find it difficult to retrieve property, receive compensation for destroyed homes or gain access to loans because family property is usually in their husband's name.

There is also a consensus that women are less likely to survive disasters, and that planning and warning systems need to be responsive to this reality. Ferris explains that this may be because women and girls are less likely to know how to swim and have less upper body strength required to hold on to trees or other anchors.

Young added that when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit in 2004, men survived almost three to one over women, partially because women's traditional roles as caregivers meant they were carrying children and had elderly relatives with them, which kept them from running fast enough to make it to safety.

Next steps for donors and policymakers

As part of its response to Haiyan, the United Kingdom has required all its partners to assess the risk of violence to women and girls and address their specific needs. It has also deployed a women's "protection specialist" and provided special supplies such as solar lanterns with built-in mobile chargers to allow women and girls to move more safely and communicate more easily.

In a high-level meeting with donors, U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening emphasized that the protection of women and girls was a serious gap in disaster planning, viewed as an "optional extra," when it should be seen as a life-saving intervention.

Key actors from the government, the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations and civil society signed communique that recognized the life-saving value of protecting women and girls in crisis situations.

Young stressed that evacuation camps should be adequately lit. Showers and latrines for women and girls should be private and secure. Shelters should be guarded. Food programs should be designed so they aren't misused to promote forced transactional sex.

Donors need to dedicate more funding to reproductive health services, awareness-raising of gender-based violence, and counseling and treatment for survivors, while aid workers should be sensitized and trained on zero tolerance of exploitation in the workplace, Manohar said.

Save the Children routinely distributes hygiene kits that contain female hygiene products during emergencies. They also build child- and adolescent-friendly spaces, where girls can socialize, learn, play and receive important information on sexual health and are taught to recognize danger signs and where to seek help.

Above all else, relief services need to be designed with women's ministries and civil society women's networks at the planning table, Young added.

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