Politics of Poverty

Preventing gender-based violence in disasters’ wake

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Paola Lux Sacbaja, the gender technician for FIECA in Patzun, Guatemala with women leaders from their local communites who have received the training in gender violence prevention from FIECA. Photo: Ilene Perlman / Oxfam America

The gendered effects of disasters – natural or otherwise – warrant more consideration and action.

Katherine Stanley is the Extractive Industries Program Coordinator at Oxfam America.

At the World Bank this past fall, a room full of gender-based violence (GBV) and humanitarian experts attended the launch the latest edition of the “Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action.” Created by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the guidelines are meant to assist humanitarian actors and communities affected by armed conflict, natural disasters and other humanitarian emergencies to plan, implement, monitor and evaluate essential actions for preventing and mitigating GBV across all sectors of humanitarian response. The event’s line-up was impressive and the speakers powerful, yet I was struck by how disconnected the development and humanitarian sectors are from one another, and how rarely we reach out to build allies outside of our areas of expertise. For example, people were surprised I was there and curious what value this humanitarian-gender launch could have for my work on extractive industries. I was even asked, “why would someone working with oil, gas and mining affected communities come to ‘their’ launch?”

Within the Extractive Industries team at Oxfam, our focus on natural resource justice often intersects with environmental disasters, social upheaval and ongoing conflict. And while our mandate is to focus most closely on industrial disasters over humanitarian crises – there are more similarities between the two than you might initially think.

In November, the Guardian reported that a “fast-moving wall of water tore off roofs, leveled trees and swept away cars in Bento Rodrigues.”  You would think you were reading about the latest tsunami to hit Southeast Asia, right? Wrong. The newspaper was reporting on the effects of a dam bursting in Brazil that swept away six villages.

An incident like this is typically labeled an industrial disaster, but as you might guess from the quote above, it also has distinctly humanitarian elements. If the communities in Brazil were destroyed by a flood, we would have called it a “natural disaster,” but when they happen at industrial mine sites, they’re characterized as “environmental disasters,” “dam failures” or “industrial accidents.” Sadly, the effects are the often the same. Both leave massive amounts of human suffering in their wake, and both impact men and women differently.

Gender-based violence is rooted in unequal power relations between men and women and is defined as any physical, mental, or social abuse committed on the basis of the victim’s gender. This type of violence is tragically common across the globe, and is also often a particular feature of emergency situations. The speakers at the launch spoke at length about this, and more specifically the ways in which humanitarian disasters – and our responses to them – impact women and men differently.

For instance, while men are often first to be killed, or responsible for fighting themselves,  women are often responsible for their fleeing families, and regularly risk their personal security to collect water and food, while still living under cultural and maternal norms like eating last. In addition, the sheer stress of disasters can subject women to an increase in domestic violence. All of these factors compound the dangers that affect everyone fleeing, including the lack of food, heightened risk of illness, and inadequate or non-existent medical care. And as I’ve alluded, these impacts are not unique to natural disasters or conflict zones; disasters from extractive industries also displace families, decimate livelihoods, make it extremely difficult for people to meet their basic needs, and cause similarly gendered impacts.

The IASC guidelines are critical for the humanitarian sector, but are also useful outside the sector, because the consequences of disasters – whether natural or industrial – look so very similar.  The guidelines’ recommendations for safe and appropriate supply delivery, shelter construction, and mitigating security risks for women while collecting water and firewood, are important and worth considering. For some, these may be relatively obvious solutions, the guidelines also provide insight for dealing with more complex situations – for example, how to ensure cash transfer programs are delivered in a way that protects women from sexual exploitation for money or essential supplies like food.

The guidelines also provide indicators to help ensure GBV interventions work in each phase of disaster response. This isn’t just important for non-profits and communities, it is also important to companies who may lead the remedy process in industrial disaster scenarios. The guidelines offer companies both qualitative and quantitative indicators for measuring success.

The guidelines, give us the tools we need to work across the humanitarian-development divide; sharing learning across sectors, and supporting women, children and men in managing whatever type of disaster comes their way. These guidelines should not just apply to a narrow definition of disasters, but to the wide variety that, unfortunately, many people face. And since women and children often bear the long-term brunt of the impacts of disasters of all kinds – it’s essential that we consider the different ways these events impact them. If we don’t, we’ll lose a critical opportunity to support those at greatest risk and support positive change.

I hope we’ll all begin thinking more about how we can all respond with more sensitivity and inclusivity in our work – no matter what the sector. If you have resources and ideas to share about how to be more gender-sensitive in disaster situations, please share them below! We’d love to keep the dialogue going.

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