Disaster responders 'not working together' to address gender-based violence, report finds

Two girls from Tacloban stand in front of some of the damage and debris left by Typhoon Haiyan. Photo by: Evan Schneider / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

BANGKOK — The risks of gender-based violence are exacerbated during disasters — and aid groups can do more to mitigate them, a new report from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies finds.

Sexual and gender-based violence increased after disasters in three Southeast Asian nations, with risks including sexual harassment and assault, child marriage, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and trafficking. The effects threatened people’s daily dignity and health, according to IFRC’s “The Responsibility to Prevent and Respond to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Disasters and Crises report, published today.

Drawing on household surveys and focus group discussions with 1,800 people affected by disasters in Indonesia, Laos, and the Philippines, the study revealed that people most at risk were adolescent girls, followed by adolescent boys, and older women.

More female surge staff can reduce sexual assault in disaster response

When disaster hits, surge staff are the first on the ground to assess and implement the immediate response required. Currently, the majority of surge staff are male. Devex spoke with professionals in the field to understand the impacts of having more female surge staff, from ensuring women's voices are better heard to helping curb sexual abuse in the sector.

One-third of respondents in the Philippines said that women and girls felt distressed by the rise in child marriage after disaster, while 27 percent of people in Laos were aware of someone who had been raped following a disaster. People were also worried about trafficking and overcrowding in shelters. Sexual minority groups interviewed for the report, meanwhile, expressed a lack of support for lesbian women, gay men, transgender, intersex, and queer people following disaster.

Coordination between many services breaks down due to the lack of maintenance of referral pathways between health, psychosocial, legal aid, safehouse networks, and other key services, according to Priyanka Bhalla, IFRC sexual and gender-based violence adviser and the report’s lead author. The survey results point to weaknesses throughout disaster prevention and response phases, she said.

“We’re still hearing about risk factors to sexual and gender-based violence going up in all these different contexts,” Bhalla said. “We’re still hearing about bad shelter design. We’re still hearing about evacuation centers that are not vetted for safety and therefore the risk factors there go up as well.”

The report calls on governments, aid agencies, and communities to protect people by taking concrete measures such as ensuring that evacuation centers have separate spaces for women and men, separate and lockable toilets, and adequate lighting. Similar guidance for how to integrate gender-based violence prevention and response in humanitarian settings has been around for 15-20 years, “but I think, just like with women's leadership, we are still lacking in terms of implementation,” Bhalla said.

Disaster responders should partner with local agencies that specialize in treating and supporting survivors of sexual violence, and the humanitarian cluster system in particular requires better coordination, Bhalla said.

“It would be beneficial if the protection cluster did better coordination with the shelter cluster and the health cluster because those three are sort of key to looking at GBV prevention and response,” she said.

There are examples of where this is already happening — like in the Rohingya crisis response in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where aid groups mapped a referral pathway for GBV survivor care through the protection cluster that other clusters have tapped into as well, Bhalla explained. Still, “you have select examples of best practice case studies and certain organizations who focus on it more than others,” Bhalla said.  

In Indonesia, only 3 percent of respondents had adequate legal information for problems including domestic violence, sexual harassment in temporary housing, and a lack of inclusion for people with disabilities, according to the survey. One factor to address gaps like this is to examine a country’s disaster law implementation and existing frameworks to determine whether language around both gender equality and inclusion and sexual and gender-based violence and response has been included.

That tends to have a “big impact” on the actions of responders at all different levels, Bhalla said. The Philippines, for example, has a strong disaster law framework with specific language on child protection and how to handle SGBV survivors. The law has enabled the country to strengthen health, legal, psychosocial, and security sector support at the community level to better respond to survivors.

At the local level, mobile health clinics responding to a disaster should have staff who have been trained in the clinical management of rape and the administration of postexposure prophylaxis kits, the report recommends. All staff should understand how to handle disclosures with confidentiality, administer the minimum initial service package within 72 hours of the emergency, and give accurate and updated referral services information.

Bhalla has high hopes that the report’s findings can also influence work regionally, by creating stronger linkages between the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response, ASEAN Committee on Women, and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children work plans. A biannual coordination meeting between the three bodies could also serve to strengthen SGBV prevention and response during disasters and crisis.

In the longer term, all disaster responders should seek to address gender inequality and abuse of power — the root causes of sexual and gender-based violence, Bhalla said.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.