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Women in Emergencies: Amplified Vulnerabilities

Here’s what I’ve just read on CNN: More than 200 people are dead and 1,700 injured after a powerful 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck the border region between Iran and Iraq late Sunday.

Shocks were also felt in Pakistan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Turkey.

I’m in Lebanon. I didn’t feel it. But here’s what I do feel.

I remember Haiti. And Nepal. And what earthquakes do to women and girls.

How can a natural disaster – a tragedy of this scale – discriminate? Doesn’t it affect everyone equally? No.

I’ll explain.

In 2010 I was deployed to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake.

… where women living in camps were afraid to use the toilet – because of the risks they faced trying to get there.

… where girls as young as 9 were being raped by packs of 11-year old boys.

… where peacekeepers giving out food rations would offer “a little extra” to women who will do “a little extra” for them.

In Haiti, a young woman in a camp told me: If I could do one thing for my Haitian sisters, it would be to help them take charge of their own bodies and protect them. Now – our lives are public. We have even lost the right to bathe in private.

I have one pair of underwear only, she said. I wash it every night so I can wear it clean the next day. I will keep doing this – it is all I have left. We must adapt – or we don’t survive.

We’ve seen over and over how disasters affect women much more than men. And the worse the disaster, the more dramatic the impact on women. A few years later, I was in Nepal for the humanitarian response following the 2015 earthquake. Of the 1.3 million people affected, about 53% were women.

Why? Women were home. Less able to escape. Encumbered by traditional clothing. Also trying to save their children. We saw the same in the 2005 Tsunami. And then, more women drowned because they were never even taught to swim.

But when the disaster ends, it doesn’t seem to end for women. Even before disaster strikes, women are more vulnerable – particularly in patriarchal societies. With a disaster, this vulnerability is amplified.

It is said that disasters bring out the best and worst in us. Initially we save each other, we support each other. But when the dust settles, and people realize what they’ve lost, women become increasingly targeted.

Women and girls face increased risk of violence – rape, trafficking, sexual exploitation, child marriage.

While in Nepal, I experienced the second earthquake. And a few days later, I was in London delivering a TEDx talk.

It started this way:

On Tuesday May 12, around lunchtime, I was sitting in the office at the United Nations in Kathmandu, busily typing away.  Suddenly, things started to feel a bit shaky. I did not want to believe it was serious. I turned to face my colleagues. Their faces were filled with fear – so, yes, it was serious.

We were on the third floor – so rather than make for an exit we all moved to a column in the center of the room. We hugged the column, hugged each other, and waited for the earth to stop growling.

I heard colleagues praying in Nepali.

And others saying: No, not again. Not again!

And me: underneath the fear, I heard myself think:

Did I save that document I was working on?

Who will look after my dog?

I just made coffee – will it spill?

And – more importantly – what will the world look like when the shaking stops?

For most Nepalis, this new shaking brought up once again all the fear that had barely subsided from the first earthquake two weeks earlier.

Once you feel unsafe in a place – it’s hard to ever feel safe there again.

So why was I in Nepal?

I went to Nepal to work. I work in humanitarian emergencies – conflicts, natural disasters – the messy stuff in the world. And in the midst of that messy stuff, I work on preventing and responding to sexual violence – or trying to, anyway.

Right after a war, or a natural disaster, in the midst of all that chaos – law and order, support and services, community networks – all these things are damaged and destroyed.

At the moment you’d expect us all to stick together – we don’t. At those times, sexual violence actually increases.

So – when we think the emergency is over – for women it is actually just beginning.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the world if ending sexual violence is a career rather than common sense.


I can only hope that women will fare better following yesterday’s tragedy.

But I’m not optimistic.

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