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‘Women Largely Ignored In Planning For Natural Disasters’

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Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett

By DR IAN BETHELL-BENNETT

Women tend to suffer more during and after natural disasters. We have learned lessons from Long Island and Ragged Island, but these seem to have evaporated into the ether.

Women and girls are deeply impacted by natural disasters and the man-made disasters that follow. We tend not to consider the significance of gender in natural disaster preparedness and recovery; firstly because gender is not something most of the country considers, and secondly, because not doing so allows challenges to be downplayed. This is the first part of this exploration and focuses on gender design, policy, and natural disaster. We see an incredibly important link with this and climate change as a whole.

Why is this important?

If we begin by understanding that the very premise of design does not usually include women’s needs, then we can follow through with this to see how women and girls’ needs are ignored or overlooked from planning and design for natural disaster preparedness, mitigation and recovery.

We know that men feel helpless and angry after disasters. They also feel powerless and traumatised after having been left destitute or close to it after a storm and the cavalry does no appear. We know social violence and drinking increases around and after traumatic moments. Violence against women tends to increase drastically due to the post-traumatic stress (PTSD) left untreated; many people think PTSD is not real. Further, in the wake of Dorian, as discussed in Naomi Klein’s work as well as Yarimar Bonilla and Marisol LeBron’s “Aftershocks of Disaster”, many people are doubly traumatised by being all but completely excluded from the recovery and rebuilding of their communities by government and government agencies. Trauma is damaging to the fabric of community and family. And, when not addressed, trauma breads social breakdown and dysfunction. Gender is an acute area ignored in all aspects of Bahamian culture, especially when related to planning and recovery: areas that are seen as men’s work.

Women and girls experience disasters differently because structurally the country does not consider their needs. As has been repeatedly demonstrated in design and architecture as well as urban planning, spaces and structures are often designed for men; the so-called “masculinist” approach to design results from most designers being men, or even when many women move into positions of power and community influence, they do not consider the various needs women have in space.

Secondly, policy for disaster preparedness and recovery focuses on male needs, mostly because men write most policy. Space is built around masculine demands, as in terms of men moving around in cars, not on foot, not carrying babies or even needing to have access to buildings for carriages and prams. So, even when buildings government refers to as hurricane shelters are built, little attention, if any, is paid to how they are built or how functional they are. There are few if any special codes for these spaces that work to ensure that women can function within them. Further, lighting, and design that includes the needs of elders and women, who need far more public lighting because they are far more often the victims of assaults and muggings, fail or dysfunction.

Young girls are also caught in this as well as when they play outside and walk between home and school. Little protects them from predators and perpetrators, especially between dusk and nightfall, and once again in the early morning hours. Many women must leave home to get to work before their employers leave or in order to arrive in time for shifts that begin between 6am and 8am. Lighting is important. This is a superficial exploration of space and design, without even considering climate change or natural disaster’s impacts.

In New Orleans’ Katrina, Puerto Rico’s Irma and María, and in Ragged Island’s Irma, women and girls were directly more impacted and indirectly impacted by climate change because of the feminisation of poverty and social and geographic displacement (Women and Climate Change: A Case‐Study). Women are usually sent from their homes after natural disasters because the system has collapsed. They accompany children so they can attend school and they struggle to find work and maintain links that facilitate their existence. They often come into a labour force that chooses to pay them less and to exploit them because it can. As many women work in the informal sector, some employers refuse to pay them after they have delivered their labour, while others attempt to exploit them sexually. In Ragged Island, given the government’s decision to close the town, women were forced to migrate, as they were in Puerto Rico and New Orleans. Poor, black women were doubly victimised by this system. Men needed to stay back to ‘protect’ their property from marauding invaders or governments that sought to invoke the law of imminent domain, forced acquisition or refuse to pay for repairs based on persons not having a paper title they could show.

Natural complications

Women require extra support from their communities, from feminine hygiene items to health assistance with pregnancy and post-partum needs that translate into social and geographic displacement; none of this is accounted for in any policies. Nor, is it considered in the cost of post-disaster recovery. Private-sector parties usually step in and assist as government fails in this area. As Negri and Hart state, this only allows government to fail and moves the onus from them to the individual or the international community. As the latter steps up, government steps back.

Safety and security

In the wake of a storm such as Dorian, women and girls displaced by the damage are lumped into shelters that are not adequate and put the cat among the pigeons. More women are exposed to sexual violence in shelters than elsewhere during the recovery. Young girls are often sought out by predators because they are vulnerable. Shelters become breeding grounds for exploitation and violence. This is often doubled by security forces who use their positions of power to exact “favours” from already traumatised and exploited persons. This is a combination of structural and epistemic violence that governments deny or feign knowledge of the existence of, usually while practicing it. We have seen this especially in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti with international agencies along with security forces.

Violence is often worsened by disempowering the victims through empowering perpetrators or simply facilitating their actions through weak or nonexistent protocols and policies. Because there are no protocols, or very weak ones, and because most people who work nationally in this area are poorly trained, the system exposes those who have survived an already harrowing reality to a second wave of victimisation through its inaction and/or incompetence, or simple desire to further exploit the weak. Currently, the system benefits by silencing victims, but that soon shall end. Women and girls are overwhelmingly the victims of these acts of systemic, structural, epistemic and cultural forms of violence normalised through corruption and mismanagement.

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