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Flooding, Rape, and Other Disasters

October 7, 2009

A monster typhoon has pummeled the Philippines, an earthquake has shattered parts of Indonesia, and a tsunami has drowned much of Samoa.  All in all, for Asia Pacific, it hasn’t been a great start to the month.

Photo/Salvation Army

Photo/Salvation Army

Women are especially vulnerable.  They need sanitary napkins, diapers for their children, birth control pills and emergency contraception, among other staples like food and shelter.  Then they’ll probably need rape kits, counseling and legal help for the bouts of sexual violence that are bound to follow.

Something about the anarchy of disasters — whether natural like Katrina or man-made like Darfur — undermines the usual social norms of respect for rights of women, and an adherence to non-rape.  It’s as if these social norms are held together by scotch tape, and it doesn’t take much for them to be destroyed all together.  The horrid descriptions of rape in the Congo and Darfur are so consistent now they’ve almost become a droning background noise.  But it happened after Hurricane Katrina, too.

And to make matters worse, the priorities of women’s health care almost always fall by the wayside in relief efforts.  Especially the touchier ones, like dealing with rape and abortion.  It seems women are immediately in peril when anything out-of-the-ordinary happens to disrupt normal social harmony and sanity.  They’re both more vulnerable in terms of sexual violence, and they’re more often under-served and neglected as they endure these rights abuses.  Who cares about birth control or EC when there’s food to dole out?  Well, the woman who just got raped does, so she can continue to stay healthy and feed her family.  So it’s sort of a double whammy.

There’s plenty of evidence that sexual violence increases in conflict and post-conflict settings.  But why?  Is the confusion of a crisis the perfect time to commit that crime of sexual violence you’ve always been wanting to commit?  Or is there something about the angst of crises that compels people to do very horrible, but maybe very primal things?

Just makes me wonder what holds things in some semblance of order the rest of the time.  In any case, please remember all of the survivors of this most recent bout of disasters, and of course all those enduring the ongoing ones.

Check out OxFam, Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and Circle of Health International for some of the groups working on women’s rights and health in disaster settings.

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