TACLOBAN, Philippines – Efforts to help hundreds of thousands of women and girls in areas devastated by Typhoon Haiyan last month remain woefully inadequate, according to the United Nations and several international aid groups.
On top of the struggle to secure basic provisions like food, shelter, and medications, women and girls face an increased risk of violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse, rape, forced marriage and trafficking in the typhoon’s aftermath.
A report by international aid organization Plan International titled “Double Jeopardy: Adolescent Girls and Disasters” highlighted the disproportional dangers and hardships that women face in the time after a crisis. The findings are striking—worldwide, females are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster than males. Girls are less likely to be rescued and fed than boys and far more likely to be sexually victimized. After a disaster, boys are more likely than girls to return to school. In addition to these worldwide trends, there is also evidence that previous emergencies in the Philippines have resulted in an increase in violence against the female population, and an increase in trafficking of girls.
In the face of such well-documented and glaring safety inequities, why is so little, if any, aid money specifically earmarked to address problems facing women and girls?
Aid groups do not usually prioritize intervention in risks facing women because they are not considered life threatening. This reasoning is obviously flawed. The highest numbers of women dying during childbirth are in countries experiencing crises. Girls in humanitarian crises are more likely to experience unintended pregnancies, maternal mortality and disability, and are more vulnerable to unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
If a woman is raped, she only has 72 hours to seek treatment to prevent the potential spread of the HIV virus. She has only 120 hours to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. She may have only a few hours to seek treatment before life-threatening injuries become fatal. Assault, abuse and trafficking are indeed life threatening, and are certainly emergencies warranting immediate intervention.
“There is a serious gap in disaster planning where protecting girls and women should have been. Some say this is an optional extra rather than the life-saving intervention it is,” said Justine Greening, Britain’s International Development Secretary.
“Even basic benchmarks for safeguarding women and girls in camps–such as lockable latrines, safe access to firewood, and adequate lighting–are not put in place,” Greening said.
Greening co-chaired an international conference to address worldwide gaps in crisis aid and planning for women and girls last month, held coincidentally just a week after the typhoon hit. She called for action and 13 countries, including the United States, agreed to immediately prioritize protecting women and girls rather than wait for confirmation that they were disproportionately victimized in the typhoon aftermath. While this marks progress, funding and the coordination of efforts necessary for successful implementation of programs is lacking, and reveals the need for development of a systematic response to protect this population.
For example, the UN Population fund recently asked its donor nations for $30 million for typhoon aid to hire temporary staffers at 80 pregnancy wards, provide hundreds of thousands of women with hygiene supplies and provide necessary counseling for victims of rape, but has received only $3 million in response. Instead of pledging additional money, USAID administrators say that that the U.S. will now require existing programs it funds to demonstrate that they are taking steps to protect women.
Real progress in protecting women and girls in crises requires the development of programs specifically focused on tackling gendered violence and health problems, argues Heidi Lehmann, the director of the Women’s Protection and Empowerment unit of the International Rescue Committee. Lehmann and other critics assert that it is not realistic “to think that you can add a bullet point to the shelter guy’s job description” to address these problems.
With the lack of a coordinated effort, progress to protect the most vulnerable population after the devastation of Haiyan is slow. There have been small improvements, like the decision to send a “women’s protection specialist” to oversee programs and a recent shipment of lanterns with built in chargers for cell phones for emergencies, but there is still much to be done to save female lives and protect their futures.
“It’s about giving girls a voice, participation matters. It’s also about choice over what women do post-crisis–what they do with their lives, what to do for a job, when to get married and what happens to their bodies. This matters,” Greening says.
– Sarah Morrison
Sources: Al Jazeera America, International Business Times, The Guardian, New York Times, The Telegraph