When disaster strikes, put women in charge
Violence against girls and women soars in times of disaster. The lack of safe spaces for them during floods, earthquakes or wars, compounds their vulnerability in unequal societies.
But humanitarian interventions rarely take this into account, according to Plan International’s 2013 report on adolescent girls and disasters.
The risk of rape and, especially, sexual exploitation increases and girls’ families and communities are least able to protect them. On the contrary, girls and young women may be forced to resort to selling sex to meet their own family’s needs during an emergency.
In Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake, pregnancy rates in Haitian camps were three times higher than the previous average urban rate, according to Human Rights Watch. Two thirds of these pregnancies were unplanned and unwanted.
This isn’t unknown or peculiar to Haiti. It happens in disaster situations across the world. Oxfam and its aid workers in the field should know this stuff, if not in detail at least in principle.
And yet Oxfam staffers in Haiti – and we now know it’s more than one bad apple – exploited these most vulnerable of vulnerable people (we still don’t know just how young they were) in a time of crisis. They added injury to injury.
That’s not what humanitarian aid is supposed to be. It is inexcusable, and so is the culture that allows it and excuses it. With each statement calling for ‘proportion’ Oxfam top brass seems to be digging itself in deeper and deeper.
Now, at last, Oxfam has released the ‘full’ but redacted report into activities of its staff in Haiti during the country’s earthquake and its aftermath. It reveals behaviour even worse than we heard about last week. Witnesses to the abuse were physically threatened. Recommendations from the report (which dates back to 2011) were never put into practice. Predatory, exploitative staff were able to go and work elsewhere in the charity sector – and presumably, just carry on doing what men like that do. End of story.
Perhaps for those who were in position to do something about this in 2011, young dark-skinned women were – as is so often the case – just not considered important enough. Not compared with the imperatives of keeping a lid on all this nastiness and limiting reputational damage to the institution. It’s hard not to come to this conclusion.
For Oxfam it’s a public relations disaster of epic proportions – but good may come of it. Maybe Oxfam and other agencies (and you can bet others are waiting for their turn in the spotlight) will finally abandon the idea that men hired on short-term contracts are somehow best suited to run programmes in dangerous places and deliver aid to vulnerable people.
Maybe they will consign the figure of the neo-colonial, testosterone-fuelled aid adventurer to the grim past where it belongs. Perhaps the agencies will have the sense to recruit women to posts and situations where female recipients of aid are most at risk. And that means pretty much any disaster situation, anywhere in the world. Haiti is not unique. In Bangladesh, in Congo, Thailand, Kenya there are reports of NGO staff, and people posing as aid workers, sexually exploiting girls and young women, often in exchange for food, relief, money or a tent.
A woman during the Haiti disaster recalls a young girl who had lost her tent. She asked the girl why she did not get another one. ‘She told me that the man from the organization said she could have another tent if she slept with him.’
How different it could be if those young women who are being sexually abused and exploited, were instead listened to, respected and empowered to improve the situations of their families and to help to rebuild their communities?
Putting women in key roles in disaster work won’t be the only answer. But it might be a start.