Tonga. Saturday January 16, 2022. An underwater volcano erupted, probably the biggest on record in more than 30 years. The result was tsunamis across the Pacific — a massive natural disaster. The damage has already been significant. At this stage, deaths and injuries remain unclear but the Red Cross estimates up to 80,000 people have been affected.
It reminds me — probably all of us — of another tsunami.
December 26, 2004. An earthquake in the Indian Ocean created a tsunami the likes of which the world had never seen. An estimated 230,000 people died across 14 countries, most of which were in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.
I went to Sri Lanka in February of 2005 to research the gendered impact of the wave.
At that point I had already heard some horrific numbers: 40,000 dead, 30,000 injured, 400,000 displaced. And people continued to die from tsunami-related injuries and disease for months after the wave.
We’d like to imagine that everyone suffers equally from such disasters. Waves don’t discriminate, do they?
Yes, they do.
I know this because I used to work in humanitarian emergencies — conflicts and natural disasters.
Ultimately, the response in Tonga needs to center women, to ensure that cases of sexual violence are prevented, that support structures and services are available, and that mechanisms are in place to receive complaints and take action. Women’s voices must be heard at all levels of decision-making regarding relief and rehabilitation efforts.
From my time in the field, what I learned, and what I saw, is this: when things get ugly, we want to count on systems and services, law and order, support and safety nets, to hold us together. But really, in the very times we’re supposed to step up, stand up, stick together — we don’t. At those times, sexual violence actually increases. So when we think the emergency is over, for women the emergency is actually just beginning.
This isn’t just Tonga. Or Sri Lanka.
It’s not just “other women” or “over there”. In the US after Hurricane Katrina, sexual violence increased so much that emergency services had to turn women away because they could not help them all. And domestic violence increased for years after the tragedy. For years.
This issue is literally on the global agenda right now. The theme of the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women in March is focused on “gender equality and empowerment of women and girls in the context of climate change and disaster risk reduction.”
Our response in Tonga should be a case study in how to do it right.
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