Sexual Violence and the Disaster Cycle


The following post is from longtime ReliefAnalysis supporter and contributor, Joseph P. Conrad. With new disaster zones across the Caribbean and southern US created by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the urgency to protect against sexual-based violence in these volatile environments is crucial.


Disaster planners need to anticipate for the possibility of rape and sexual violence to occur when drafting contingencies, throughout the entire life-cycle of a natural disaster so that what occurred during Katrina will not repeat in any other calamity caused by man or nature.

Twelve years ago two narratives emerged after Hurricane Katrina.  First in September, came false reports that sexual-based violence was deemed over-stated.  But merely a few months later came the news that indeed assault reports were coming in, a hotline set up, and survivors of assault were encouraged to make a report.  The reporting delay can easily be understood to be a cocktail of terrible elements, “stigma, confusion, and the prioritizing of other needs.”

Now why these assaults tick up during and after disaster could be for any number of reasons.  The most difficult to address by disaster planners are either the perverse neediness for power by one over another or drug or alcohol induced wanton violence; a natural disaster is no space in which to address a perpetrator’s appetites for any of these.

However disaster warning, impact, planning and recover phases  are together the precise space to consider and prepare for those who are and will be in most need of help and sustained protection and care.  Alongside the time dimension of stages to anticipate needs, should also be both spatial considerations as well as social system upheaval.

Those most commonly left to increased risk from a catastrophe are those “individuals … at risk because of economic and political powerlessness, cultural gender discrimination, and other cultural perceptions of inferiority and superiority,” with women and children largely composing this population.  

Key to planning then is identifying those most vulnerable and lacking in resources for mobility and self-protection, and communicating to them in particular about the dangers that are approaching.   

No one consigns another to assault simply by articulating in pre-disaster warnings that sexual assaults are known to increase during a flood, just as are drownings.  It simply makes sense that if planners articulate dangers such as electrocution may bump up due to a storm bringing water that the worst in human nature has a tendency to bump up as well.   

What good is it to be saved from electrocution only to be raped limp once the power goes out?  Protection from the human element is as important as protection form the natural.

Now while ideally systemic impoverishment, economic disparities, housing outside of code and lacking agency in one’s own affairs would be be identified, prioritized and rectified, this is beyond the scope of disaster planners; but, evacuation most certainly is.  

Once removed from the disaster zone, and placed in housing however permanent, responsibility must be assumed by those providing it.  If law enforcement and first responders are to provide care in the field, then those providing shelter need to ensure security for those displaced.   Note that a third of the sexual assaults reported during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita took place at shelters or evacuation sites, locations known in studies of refugee encampment to provide conditions leading to a particular vulnerability of gender based violence.

Additionally barriers to reporting must be taken into account such as the availability of courtesy reports by supplementing police departments and considerations for lagging reports due to the lack of transportation, closed legal agencies, crisis lines, or simple how-to- file instructions.

Finally, during the reconstruction phase among the upheaval and regional scarring, a continued protective presence must be felt regarding the influx of new faces and opportunists looking to take what they want from those too distracted by their situational trauma to notice.  Examples of solutions would be heavily monitored transitional homes, clear and easy multi-lingual reporting mechanisms, and immediate sanctions for behaviors ranging from untoward to animalistic.  

For additional tools, please see below.

For Help:

For additional Information regarding Preventing Sexual Violence in Disasters

This entry was posted in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, Health, North America, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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