23 November 2017

Protecting women and girls from violence in disasters

Author(s) Jennifer First, Disaster and Community Crisis Center, the; University of Missouri

Violence against women and girls has been shown to increase in prevalence and severity in communities experiencing a disaster. Gender-based violence (GBV) is rooted in gender inequality and unequal power relations. Its manifestations include physical, mental, or social abuse committed on the basis of a person’s gender. As climate change drives the frequency and intensity of many weather-related hazards, gender-based violence in disasters is also predicted to increase.

At the Disaster and Community Crisis Center, we study disaster risk, recovery, and resilience. Much of our research examines various social attributes and conditions that increase the risk for adverse mental and behavioral health effects.

Multiple studies have reported a rise in violence against women and girls, including sexual and physical violence in the aftermath of disasters. Several factors can explain why these rates increase in disaster-affected communities. For example, disasters may affect changes in interpersonal relationships, such as increased aggressive methods of conflict resolution or strained communication between intimate partners. Disasters also increase stressors such as housing changes, financial disruptions, and unemployment; all of which may contribute to increased rates of violence. In addition, disasters may exacerbate the effects of ongoing abuse by disrupting access to social and family support system that may offer practical and emotional assistance.

Furthermore, depending on the nature and severity of the disaster, GBV shelters and social service providers may be damaged and encounter disrupted communication networks. Similar strains may be placed on law enforcement, justice, and health services, which may impede reporting, communication, counseling, protection, and referral.

Integrating GBV services into disaster-related services can help mitigate the risks of GBV and reduce or eliminate GBV-related challenges and barriers experienced in disaster. Disaster risk professionals can promote safety for individuals experiencing violence by developing community connections to increase capacity to respond to GBV and disaster. Professionals can solicit support and collaboration from local and civil disaster professionals, health-care facilities, law enforcement agencies, and GBV organizations.

Developing connections before a disaster provides time to create trust and understanding between organizations ahead of an emergency. As connections among organizations are formed, professionals can advocate for a GBV focus within the disaster response system. This includes developing shelter and camp measures for reporting gender-based violence, fostering awareness of GBV, ensuring victim confidentiality, and putting protocols in place to ensure safe shelter and camp facilities for women and girls.

In addition, emergency management and humanitarian professionals who respond in the event of a disaster may not be adequately trained on the threats of GBV or responding to the safety concerns and needs of individuals experiencing GBV. Since emergency management and humanitarian professionals are often the first line of response for many people who experience disaster, education and training surrounding GBV in disaster settings is essential.

Finally, public policies providing resources to protect women and girls against violence in disaster settings are critical. For example, in the United States, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is the primary law defining the role of the federal government in presidentially declared disasters. However, this act does not provide for disaster assistance funds or resources specifically dedicated to address the needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls in disaster settings.

In summary, multiple studies have shown that natural disasters including tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods, disproportionately affect women and girls, who are at greater risk GBV in disaster settings. Unless effective mechanisms are developed and evaluated to address GBV in disaster settings, the growing impact of climate change and disasters will continue to put more women and girls at risk of experiencing violence and exploitation. 

Jennifer First is the Disaster Mental Health Program Manager at the Disaster and Community Crisis Center and a doctoral candidate in the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on examining factors and interventions that promote positive outcomes for individuals and families experiencing stressful or traumatic events.

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