Cyclone Pam - Lessons UnlearnedA team of experts from ActionAid Australia recently visited evacuation shelters in Port Vila, Vanuatu to report on conditions facing women who have been displaced by Cyclone Pam.  Here’s what they describe:

Pregnant women are sleeping on thin mats on the ground.  Men and women share sleeping spaces.  The evacuation centers are barely lit at night, if lit at all.  At night time, women have to find their way in the dark to the toilets that are shared with the men.  There is nowhere to wash, except in the rivers.  Adequate sanitary items haven’t been distributed, and women are using toilet paper – if they have access to it.

There is a growing awareness that mega-disasters disproportionately affect women and other vulnerable populations, and that these groups have different needs than men following displacement.  And yet, vulnerable groups are routinely denied the measure of protection they deserve – protection they are entitled to under law – disaster after disaster after disaster.

Consider the 2011 Fukushima, Japan nuclear disaster that displaced more than 300,000 people.  Officials at multiple government-run shelters denied requests from evacuees to put up dividers, which meant that women were housed alongside men they didn’t know, and publicly exposed when changing clothes or nursing an infant.  People who were incontinent, including the elderly, had nowhere to privately change their own diapers.  Moreover, the shelters did not even stock adult incontinence aids, or women’s sanitary supplies.  The implications of these oversights are wide-reaching.  As one Japanese woman reported, “There’s food [in the shelter], but I’ve lost four kilograms because it’s difficult having absolutely no time or space to ourselves.”

Vulnerable populations are also more likely to be raped or otherwise violently assaulted in mismanaged shelters, like those across the gulf coast of the United States following the Hurricane Katrina levee breach.  The layout of shelters in Louisiana and Texas forced women and unaccompanied minors to share undivided sleeping space with men, including registered sex offenders who should have been – either by law or accepted practice – housed in separate facilities.  According to one Red Cross representative, “the sheer size of the shelters and their many hiding places, coupled with a lack of lighting due to power outages, makes them less than ideal for emergency housing.”

I worked alongside displaced women and girls in shelters in Houston, and many reported having been assaulted and harassed by groups of men in the bathroom or shower areas.  Others left the shelters after their neighbors and friends were assaulted.*  International relief agencies recommend against “shared communal living space with unrelated families” for precisely this reason.  Making matters even worse, over-flowing toilets, dramatic temperature fluctuations, and a shortage of basic supplies like blankets, cold medicine, underwear and tampons, combined with sexual violence to create what one observer rightly described as “conditions in which no human being should ever have to live.”

It’s now 2015, and disaster experts just closed the Third United Nation World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.  The outcome document  – The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 – supposedly builds on our collective past experiences, and demands a “people centered” approach to disasters that prioritizes the needs of women, children, elderly people, poor people, and other vulnerable groups.  But the principles endorsed by the Sendai Framework hardly reflect the reality on the ground after Cyclone Pam – or Fukushima or the Hurricane Katrina levee breach.  I’m not sure, then, what it is we learned from these past disasters, or what we can hope for after Sendai.

*Witness: The Racialized Gender Implications of Hurricane Katrina, in Marable and Clark, Seeking Higher Ground 173 (2008)

(photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald)

-Kathleen Bergin