‘Vulnerable’ women in disaster: everyday reality as the unseen face of climate change

Myth: women are inherently more vulnerable than men

Fact: women are placed in vulnerable situations by their society’s social, economic, cultural and political arrangements.

Bonus fact: the word ‘vulnerable’ when applied to women bugs me.

As Hurricane Matthew ravages Haiti and Cuba in the Caribbean this past week, my thoughts turn as they also do to the thousands of women and girls who are and will be in evacuation centres and temporary shelters for the foreseeable future. Tens of thousands in Haiti were still living in these conditions since the last humanitarian disaster to strike the frail state, the 2010 earthquake. Latest figures say Hurricane Matthew has claimed over 800 lives so far in Haiti alone. Every time disaster like this strikes, there is the concurrent storm of images of the devastation in the media: flattened homes, muddied, flooded streets, fallen trees, people cleaning up and carrying on. And every time it is the images of the women and girls that strike me and stay with me: carrying buckets of water and salvaging household items. Looking after younger siblings. Breastfeeding babies. Cooking. Caring for elder ones. Exhausted, aching, determined, brave, strained, strong, defiant.

Photo credit CNN: Women walk through the hurricane struck town of Jeremie, Haiti just days ago.

We know that women and girls experience climate change (sudden onset like hurricanes, and slow onset like desertification) and conflict in profoundly different ways to men. Women — especially single women, female-headed households, women with disabilities and elderly women, as well as girls — tend to face greater risks after sudden onset events, like cyclones. In their day to day lives, they already experience entrenched forms of discrimination and inequality that bar them from participating in society to their fullest potential (for example, basic education, health care, adequate food and nutrition, little or no access to decent work, leadership opportunities, as well as the direct physical and emotional effects of violence). When poverty is added to the picture, more than any other factor, it compounds situations of vulnerability in disaster, because women make up 70 percent of the world’s poor.

During and post-disaster, they are in an even more vulnerable situation. In these times, women are at even greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence including rape, sexual exploitation and assault. Despite gains over the years, gender inequality is still a reality, and gender-based violence and sexual assault is a persistent and prevalent problem across the Pacific region. Although most Pacific countries (except Tonga and Palau) have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, described as an international bill of rights for women) — which includes domestic violence as a form of discrimination — compliance with and implementation of its thirty articles via domestic legislation in the region’s states is far from universal.

On one sunny, blue, August morning in Vanuatu, I was lucky to have the opportunity to learn more about how the dynamic of gender inequality and disaster plays out through the experience of a local leader, Jeanette Raupepe who had recently been there herself. Jeanette is a Ni-Vanuatu activist and leader on climate change, women’s rights and peace and leads Erakor Bridge Women’s Association, a local non-profit in the eponymous settlement where she lives, that aims to provide a safe space for women in her community to come together and talk about the issues they face, from sexual and reproductive health, to domestic violence, addiction, their children, as well as climate change. A gentle breeze around us, our half-drunk coffee and tea cups on the table, she talks in a near stream of consciousness about a place and time not long ago, starkly different to the calm of the present moment: the days and weeks after tropical cyclone Pam last year.

On March 13 2015, Cyclone Pam (commonly called “T.C. Pam” in Vanuatu), reaching Category 5 intensity on the Australian cyclone scale swept over Vanuatu with wind speeds reaching 280km/h. Communication across all of Vanuatu’s islands was crippled, only one cellular tower in Port Vila was operational, and the power grid was down. The Office of the Prime Minister estimated that 70 percent of the country’s 277,000 residents may have been displaced. It is regarded as one of the worst natural disasters in Vanuatu’s history. In fact, Vanuatu is still recovering from Pam’s effects a year and half later.

Photo credit: Roderick J Mackenzie. New Zealand Defence Force via Getty. Vanuatu after T.C. Pam, March 2015

In the months before the cyclone, Jeanette tells me she was doing research and attending more events about climate change and started learning more about how climate change impacts health, development, education, agriculture and human rights. Three days after T.C. Pam, she took an opportunity to participate in two workshops run by UNICEF and IsraAid on how to provide psycho-social first aid after disaster. The roof on her own home was blown off, and her own community of Erakor Bridge was in shambles, but she set off immediately to the devastated island of Tongoa in the Shepherds Islands, where she was born, where her ailing father lives, jumping into the deep end. She began applying what she had just learned days earlier. Approximately 95 percent of the homes on Tongoa were reportedly destroyed; the atmosphere there one of despair, tempered by the overwhelming task of clean up, the immediate next steps in rebuilding normalcy. With all there was to do, how did she get women to slow down and talk at all, far less, talk about their personal struggles?

“It wasn’t easy,” she admits. “Actually, it was a nightmare.” Jeanette tells how she would organise with the village chief for the women to come together at the nakamal (a structure built with thatch where the people gather for meetings), so they would not be clearing debris or going to market to try and sell the produce they could salvage on that day. She and the women would sit in a circle, she would begin to tell them who she was and why she was there.

Photo credit: AFP. Port Vila resident cleans up after T.C Pam.

Jeanette tells me that violence against women and girls are a deep, endemic problem in Vanuatu, and that every week there is at least one case of rape in the news. Harmful Connections, a 2015 report on violence against women and girls in the Pacific region shows there is a strong correlation between violence perpetrated against children and violence perpetrated against adult women, particularly in the home. In Vanuatu, a whopping 60 percent of ever-married women between the ages of 15–49 experienced physical and/or sexual violence by intimate partner. Thirty percent of women reported sexual abuse before age of 15, and an appalling 28 percent of women reported that their first experience of sex was rape.

Where inequitable attitudes about gender exists, violence against women persists. This is the fallout of everyday toxic masculinity meets crisis. The impacts of climate change, including extreme weather events like cyclones exacerbates existing gender inequalities, and too often women’s physical and psychological well being suffer long after the event has passed. Global statistics on climate-related hazards and natural disasters show that women and girls are among the most impacted. Estimates by Oxfam suggest that around three times as many women as men lost their lives in Asian tsunamis. Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines and displaced 4 million people in 2013, claimed a death toll of 6,300, of which 64 per cent were women. In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, over 70 per cent of the deaths from the 2004 tsunami were women; in Myanmar, 61 per cent of the fatalities from Cyclone Nargis in 2008 were women.

In post-disaster situations all over the world, women are subjected to sexual assault and domestic violence. Human traffickers’ business flourishes after disasters, as law and order breaks down, women and girls are separated from their families and may be unaccompanied and subject to sexual exploitation. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women in the Philippines were victims of sexual violence in the month following Typhoon Haiyan. After two tropical cyclones hit Tafe Province in Vanuatu in 2011, the Tanna Women’s Counselling Centre reported a 300 percent increase in new domestic violence cases.

Photo credit: pacificpolicy.org. Nellie gathers firewood near her Aunt’s home on Ifira island near Port Vila. She was unable to travel home to her father and return to school, so is helping out at home instead.

Jeanette spent three months on Tongoa providing psycho-social aid and recounts seeing what she calls “disaster upon disaster”: a spike in unwanted teenage pregnancies, STIs and women’s health issues following T.C. Pam, mostly from rape and sexual violence rampant in the shelters where women, men, boys and girls all slept under the same roof and shared the same bathroom facilities. Some women who turned to playing cards as means to earn income for the expensive and scarce food they now had to buy, as the land and lack of seeds would not yet allow them to grow it. The resulting gambling addictions, the knock on effects of abandoned children and household duties, fractures in marriages and domestic violence because of the rapid change in power dynamics as some women suddenly earned and owned the household’s money. Social issues compounded by an extreme weather event, making for a less stable, cohesive and peaceful community.

Why is this phenomenon of sexual and gender-based violence so common and intact across the world, despite stressor, hazard type, culture, political system, economic state and geography? A UN study released in 2013 that surveyed 10,000 men explored the prevalence of different types of violence in six countries in the Asia Pacific region and the factors that drive men’s use of violence. Though not regionally representative, the findings are indicative and illuminating all the same:

“Violence against women is fundamentally about gender inequality. men who…had gender-inequitable attitudes were more likely to use violence against women…men’s childhood experiences of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse increased the likelihood of men’s use of violence against women in all countries, affirming the significance of generational cycles of violence…men’s use of violence is related to ways of being a man that celebrate toughness, male heterosexual performance and dominance over women.”

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Gender Handbook offers some insights on gender in emergencies, with a view to how humanitarian response agencies might handle this:

“In crisis situations men often have great difficulty in dealing with their changed identities, the loss of their breadwinner role. As a result they may act out in terms of increased gender-based violence…These changes in ‘gender roles’ can create significant tensions between women and men when the crisis subsides or settles into a camp routine. Often women take on new roles or step into the vacuum left by men. Men may not be able to play their traditional role as wage-earner or provider. They may be humiliated by not being able to protect their family from harm….Men may lose some of their status and authority as emergencies destroy traditional family and clan structures. Men who have been the traditional leaders and wielders of power may resent the interference of women in the male domains of providing security to the family, bringing food to the household or engaging in economic activity.”

The IASC encourages practitioners to better understand the nuances of masculinity in each context and gain the support of men when involving women and youth in traditionally male activities to increase the success and sustainability of the humanitarian response.

On some days, the reality that we live in 2016 and women in almost every part of the globe are still fighting to prove their humanness, to claim their equal place under the sun, own their bodies and destinies and defend the progress that never seems quite won is exhausting, maddening, painful and downright bizarre to me.

The underlying attitudes and norms that drive sexual and gender-based violence in the Pacific are not those of some faraway place or different culture. The most recent fiasco to surface in the American election circus, #TrumpTapes and accompanying hurricane of its own throws a stark reality into the light of day what women everywhere understand only too well and learn at too young an age: your body is a public commodity. It is not really yours. You are prey. The world is not as safe for you as it is for your brother. Trump’s “You can do anything” comment represents the casual violence and easy misogyny applied to women and their bodies in the so-called developed world, too; it is the mortar from which rape culture is built. That over eight million women and counting are responding to writer Kelly Oxford with stories of their own sexual assault and harassment (#NotOkay) highlights this is not a flaw, but feature of our daily lives.

And this is why I co-exist so uneasily with that word “vulnerable”. As a woman of colour activist and feminist, I cannot fully inhabit it, yet my lived experience will not allow me to deny it. It rings only too true sometimes, and every fibre of my being rebels against why: I am merely, inescapably, unapologetically myself. And I have dared to leave the house.

Jeanette felt that involving men in her gender-based violence workshops on Efate, Ebule and Futuna in the months that followed T.C Pam was important to helping some of the men better understand and reflect on the new situation they were in and begin changing their attitudes. “I tried to help them realise women and girls have the same rights as them, and they need protection, not to be harmed in order to have peace in the community. Once women and girls don’t feel safe, there is no peace among them, in the home, in their everyday life.” It also made what she was saying more ‘acceptable’ when supportive men in the community came out openly to help her.

Above: Jeanette Raupepe and community and women’s activist, John Setak, Erakor Bridge.

One of the techniques she learned for providing psycho-social first aid was visualisation. “You sit, close your eyes and think of a place you want to be, a safe place. Some imagine their farm, a big tree they rest on after a hard day’s work, where they have lunch. After this, they draw where they are in their vision. This starts to take off the stress and trauma. Everyone talks about their picture they draw, they begin to smile and laugh.” And so hope creeps back little by little. And eventually, the door cracks open to raising taboo issues like reproductive health, domestic violence and women’s rights. She saw men willing to talk, once women started talking (perhaps aided by the fact that in the shelters, “nothing is secret anymore”, everybody knows everybody else’s business. Arguably, one of the main barriers to addressing violence against women and girls in the Pacific is that it is considered a private issue). This is why Jeanette believes in the importance of psycho-social aid; it helps everyone — men, women, children — deal with the trauma and stresses of disaster and helps to prevent ‘disaster upon disaster.’

Perhaps the same shifting gender dynamics during and post-disaster that so often leads to or intensifies violence against women and girls might also present opportunities that can be leveraged to realise greater human rights for them in the long run. Women and girls are change agents, actors and leaders in developing responses to disaster and climate change. They already play key roles in the protection and management of natural resources and disaster response, they have knowledge of the environment and community that can be tapped to craft solutions to food and water security and health, and they often share strong relationships in the community that are so important to recovery efforts.

Across communities in Vanuatu, women predominantly sow and harvest the fruit and vegetables and sell them at the market, and according to Jeanette, understand the climate is changing in ways other who are not as close to the land do not notice. They notice the trees bearing fruit changing, the quality of the produce is not the same, the growing seasons are shifting, and they are trying to adapt. Women like Jeanette who are claiming their space and building bridges give me hope that we can work with men who are champions and who are willing to hold a place for women to be included in not only solutions to climate change, but as part of humanity.

At the end of the day, it is individuals who will need to define and enhance their capacity to adapt to climate change and climate-related vulnerabilities. Including, enabling and co-powering women (half the population) in a rights-based approach to climate change and disaster risk reduction can make for greater wins for both people and planet.

Photo credit: UNFPA. A woman cleans up in Port Vila after Cyclone Pam.
Photo credit: Graham Crumb. A board member of the Vanuatu Society for Disabled People stands amid the wreckage of the Society’s office.

These days, Jeanette continues to mobilise women and youth in Erakor Bridge. She educates them about climate change, helping them to adapt, become more resilient, claim a sense of agency over an increasingly unpredictable future where another disastrous cyclone could be around the corner. She encourages families to grow backyard gardens, so that when cyclone season returns, they will have some food to sell or live on and they can use their limited income for strengthening their homes.

Jeanette tells me she is still healing from all she saw after the cyclone, but her work feels meaningful and needed and it keeps her going. “When I was there, my heart cried, but I couldn’t cry because I had to be strong.” She tries to take care of herself because her work is not possible if she is not at her best. “I apply what I learned to myself. I sit in a quiet place and close my eyes and use my imagination. It heals me, it comforts me. Sometimes I just imagine I am on an island, very green, green grass, and I sit on a hill looking over the sea.”

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