I always sort of had an idea that women and girls living in extreme poverty suffered a bit more than men from disasters like war, a flood, an earthquake or a drought — it just seems logical, if you think about it. But I had no idea how much more acutely they feel pain from these events until I started to research it.
The United Nations and other humanitarian organizations like FH have reported that incidents of rape and sexual violence in Eastern Africa have increased exponentially since the beginning of this year, when the food shortage began to get severe and people had to flee to refugee camps. In one particular region, reports from January-June 2010 showed 75 violent incidents, while the same period this year showed 358.
Two days ago, the news source AlertNet posted an article: Women need greater say in dealing with drought.
“Single women, female-headed households and adolescent girls are most at risk,” says the International Rescue Committee.
A woman or girl is especially in danger during emergencies because….
- She could be left all alone, with nothing. If a woman’s husband dies, depending on the rules of her society, even her house and her land could be taken away from her. She still would have to care for her children but likely wouldn’t have a way to earn money.
- She probably will have to walk farther to find water and food. This puts her at a greater risk of being assaulted while away from home.
- She will be taken out of school. When a family is in crisis, education is one of the first luxuries to go. Girls are pulled from school more often than boys to help care for younger children, collect water or do chores at home.
- She easily can be taken advantage of or even abducted. With no way to earn an income, women desperate to feed their children might take jobs that put them in danger (sometimes called “survival sex” in the emergency-relief industry). Children separated from their parents are left defenseless and vulnerable. They can be duped into a position of slavery, and girls particularly are at risk of being sold off as young brides or even sold into slavery by their parents just to survive.
- She needs sanitary/health facilities but won’t have any. With supplies at home destroyed and a lack of new supplies available, menstrual periods and childbirth can be especially risky for a woman’s health.
- She needs more privacy than a man, but there is no privacy. Following last year’s devastating floods in Pakistan, many women living in an overcrowded refugee camp said they only could go to the bathroom at night because this was the only time they could have privacy. In such a modest Muslim culture where breastfeeding in public is expressly prohibited, 80 percent of women reporting being unable to breastfeed because there was no place to be alone.
- She is not allowed to be a decision maker. Often, when a community’s needs are being discussed, women and girls are overlooked, unable to speak up, and thus unable to have their needs met.
How does FH help protect women and girls in crisis?
FH intentionally works with local, indigenous organizations to better understand the societal rules and to design programs accordingly, for the unique protection of the women who live there. They also make a point to meet women’s water, sanitation and hygienic needs in emergency situations. FH raises awareness on women’s protection issues and purposely involves women in income-generating activities.
While most methods of protecting women must be specific to that woman’s society, some guidelines can be adhered to worldwide. The Sphere Project is a coalition of humanitarian organizations continually revising a set of rules for addressing major disasters. FH does its best to align with Sphere standards in areas like providing safe latrines for women and girls.