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date: 07 October 2022

Disasters, Climate Change, and Violence Against Women and Girlsfree

Disasters, Climate Change, and Violence Against Women and Girlsfree

  • Virginie Le MassonVirginie Le MassonUniversity College London

Summary

Gender-based violence (GBV) is violence inflicted on someone because of their gender. It is also the worst manifestation of gender inequalities and discrimination against women and girls. Since the 1990s, the literature has increasingly documented how the combination of disaster impacts and the failure of protective systems (often unavailable in the first place) aggravates gender inequalities and violence against women and girls (VAWG). Sexual, physical, economic, psychological abuse, violence perpetrated by partners, trafficking, child marriage, and many different forms of VAWG are documented in a wide range of geographical locations at all stages of economic development. Far from being an “extraordinary” consequence of disasters, VAWG, particularly domestic abuse, reflects a continuum of a pervasive manifestation of inequality, violence, and discrimination.

GBV survivors are unlikely to report abuse or seek help, particularly when protection support is unavailable or inadequate. This discrepancy between the prevalence of violence and the lack of protection is exacerbated in the aftermath of a disaster and during crises due to environmental changes. Yet, although crucial to better examine the prevalence, trends, and consequences of VAWG during and after disasters, gender-disaggregated data are persistently missing from disaster risk assessments and vulnerability analyses of climate change impacts. Such data are also required to better support intersectional analyses of GBV occurring before, during, and after crises—that is, not just documenting the experiences of women and girls but also understanding changes in power relations and the social identities and conditions that influence the diversity of experiences among women and men, in addition to documenting the experiences of sexual and gender minorities.

Subjects

  • Gender Issues

Why Violence, Disasters, and Climate Change as a Single Entry?

The destruction and loss caused by disasters affect multiple aspects of people’s well-being, not just their immediate physical conditions but also their mental health as well as their interactions within their family and community. Since the 1990s, gender and disaster scholars have pointed out the increased risk of gender-based violence (GBV) during and in the aftermath of an emergency (Enarson, 1999; Fothergill, 1996).

GBV is violence inflicted on someone because of their gender. Here, gender designates a range of identities that do not correspond to the biological dichotomy of being male or female but instead denotes a multitude of social constructions across people’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristic (see the definitions from Edge Effect). Gender can refer to people who identify as women or men but also to lesbian, gay, bisexual persons, transgender (people whose gender differs from conventional expectations based on their assigned sex at birth), intersex (people whose sex characteristics do not fit neatly into the strict male or female binary), queer, and a myriad of other identities, labeled differently in their own cultural and geographical contexts. Everyone can be affected by GBV, but there is overwhelming evidence that women and girls constitute the primary victims. This may be interpreted as evidence of gender inequality but also as a lack of research on the experiences of other genders because violence against men and boys remains a taboo and/or because the experiences of people of diverse gender identities or expression and sex characteristics have not been adequately recognized in dominant discourses of disaster research. Nevertheless, the term violence against women and girls (VAWG) is commonly used, sometimes interchangeably with GBV, to stress the persistent discrimination against women and girls.

The emphasis on women and girls in the gender and disaster literature is grounded in social sciences that view disasters as social constructions: The impacts of natural hazards are shaped by the vulnerabilities of people and communities (Oswald-Spring, 2008; Wisner et al., 2012). Therefore, socioeconomic, political, and cultural processes that govern the functioning of communities and social relations are determinants for understanding who is at risk, where, and why. Gender and disaster scholars also ask whose knowledge of risks matters and whose experience is being documented (Bradshaw, 2013; Enarson, 1998, 2000; Enarson & Chakrabarti, 2009; Fothergill, 1996). This approach is underpinned by a feminist perspective that questions the “implicit grounding of disaster theory in men’s lives [which] affords a partial view” (Enarson & Morrow, 1998, p. 41). Hence, the integration of women’s studies, and particularly feminist political ecology, within disaster scholarship has brought key sociological concepts, including power, privilege, domination, institutions, culture, and social change, that support the analysis of the social construction of disasters through gender relations (Enarson & Morrow, 1998). Studying disasters through a social relations lens aims to make visible the social structure of communities, organizations, households, and intimate relationships that shape disaster experiences and recovery processes (Anderson & Woodrow, 1989; Enarson, 1999). For tenets of this approach, the aim is not to search for physical differences between a binary understanding of gender groups (i.e., women versus men) but, rather, to examine privilege and oppression within social groups (Phillips & Morrow, 2008). Placing the attention on gender relations in particular has been critical to better comprehend power dynamics (Agarwal, 1997) and how these might be challenged or exacerbated during and after a crisis.

The same questions and objectives have framed the literature on gender and climate change since the 2000s (Dankelman, 2010; Masika, 2002), also influenced by the vast body of knowledge on gender and environment that documents the disproportionate adverse impacts of environmental degradation on women (Buckingham, 2000). Societal expectations and power relations that define the roles, responsibilities, behaviors, access to, and ownership of resources of people with different identities help understand how they experience risk in the context of climate change (Halle & Kellog, 2020; Women Deliver, 2021). Overwhelmingly, however, research on gender and climate change focuses on understanding the differential impacts of climate risks including pathways to VAWG. For Sherilyn MacGregor (2010), this “fixation” on impacts has, among several shortcomings, left aside “the feminist political goal of challenging patriarchal discourses and structures” (p. 226), including researching the gendered root causes of environmental degradation. Fewer studies examine how existing VAWG, driven not by climate change but by discriminatory gender norms, is exacerbated by environmental issues (Le Masson et al., 2019) or how different discourses on masculinities, including the role of violence, help understand climate change (Hultman, 2017).

Uncovering the Increased Risk of Violence in Disaster and Stress Situations

During or immediately after the occurrence of disasters, those at risk generally take action to protect themselves, their families, and their neighbors (Kreps, 1984). In many cases, the occurrence of extreme events has been a catalyst to strengthen community bonds and solidarity (Anderson & Woodrow, 1989; Oliver-Smith, 1999), and social capital also strengthens disaster recovery (Nakagawa & Shaw, 2004). However, a larger body of research has documented how pre-existing inequalities have been aggravated by disaster events, with already disadvantaged groups being further marginalized.

Research on VAWG occurring during and after disasters first emerged in the early 1990s. Alice Fothergill’s (1996) review of the literature on gender and disasters at the time offers a baseline of gender-related differences throughout the life cycle of a disaster event—that is, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. Among key findings were the suggested increased rates of domestic violence, particularly spousal abuse, in times of disaster, based on studies conducted in the United States (Palinkas et al., 1993, as cited in Fothergill, 1996) and in Australia (Dobson, 1994; Honeycombe, 1994). Fothergill pointed out in her review that a compounding risk for increased violence was the decrease in police protection and the lack of enforcement of laws regarding domestic disputes. This already stressed that the risk of violence might not solely be triggered by direct adverse impacts of disasters on people’s mental health and families’ well-being but also by the failure of protective systems.

Elaine Enarson (1999) offers the first compilation of evidence about the greater risk of violence against women in communities affected by disasters. Examples came from the Philippines, after the 1991 Pinatubo eruption (Delica, 1998, as cited in Enarson, 1999), and from the United States, following the Loma Pietra earthquake in 1989 (Wilson et al., 1998), Hurricane Andrew in Miami in 1992 (Morrow, 1997, as cited in Enarson, 1999), and the 1993 Missouri floods (Fothergill, 2008). In many of these instances, the evidence of violence cases was collected due to field reports from relief operations and from monitoring the trend of demand for protective services such as help lines and women’s shelters, particularly in the United States. Fothergill (2008) later questioned whether an increase in demand for services proved that violence increased: Those seeking assistance might have been in an abusive relationship prior to the disaster but never asked for help, or the increase could be indicative of existing service users all needing support at the same time. With the limited number of studies in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was difficult to affirm whether violence that was routinely occurring before disasters became more reported or if domestic violence increased immediately after disasters or occurred later in the recovery. Following the 1998 Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua and Honduras, domestic and sexual violence seemed to decrease immediately after the emergency but steadily increased during the reconstruction phase (Delaney & Shrader, 2000). The previously mentioned issues remain critical because many studies that report increased GBV rates post-disasters tend not to rely on primary data collected prior to the event, thus not allowing a comparison. Lee (2018) conducted a database search of articles published in English between 2008 and 2017 and that mentioned a change in incidence or prevalence of VAWG after a disaster: In total, out of 21 entries, only 5 provided comparative data pre- and post-disasters. Limitations in the quality of available quantitative studies are also stressed by Thurston et al. (2021), who published the first systematic review of quantitative and qualitative evidence on VAWG after disaster exposure.

The majority of studies on disaster and VAWG have shown for several decades that violence occurs in post-disaster settings, exacerbating the adverse impacts of hazards on survivors’ health, economic prospects, and overall well-being. However, Thurston et al.’s (2021) review provides evidence that VAWG also increases: 11 quantitative studies out of the 20 quantitative and 1 mixed-method assessments they reviewed found positive associations between disaster exposure and VAWG. A common thread in the literature is that the reported violence is perpetrated by family or community members. This departs from the conceptualization of GBV in emergencies associated with wars and humanitarian crises in which perpetrators are often combatants, strangers, and even protectors. The Human Security Research Group (2012) stressed that the literature that documents GBV in war-affected areas predominantly examines physical and sexual violence against women and girls perpetrated by combatants. This narrative, however, ignores domestic violence that occurs during war (or before and after war), which affects a far greater number of women than sexual violence perpetrated by militias, rebel groups, and government forces (Human Security Research Group, 2012). The risk of violence occurring within the home and the community in times of crises, such as following natural-hazards related disasters, has been much less documented (Fisher, 2010). Evidence is also often gathered by humanitarian agencies, making the gray literature one of the main sources of information on GBV and disasters. With the COVID-19 pandemic which started in February 2020, more evidence has been gathered on the occurrence and increase of VAWG inside the household as a result of lockdown measures and the need for gender-responsive disaster response (e.g., Roure, 2020; Sánchez et al., 2020).

Typologies of Violence in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change

Violence occurs in all settings—that is, in the workplace, on public transports, in the streets, in internally displaced camps, online, and within the home—but VAWG disproportionately occurs within the family or domestic unit and between former or current spouses or partners (García-Moreno et al., 2005). Also referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV), this violence is overwhelmingly borne by women in all regions of the world [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 2019; World Health Organization (WHO), 2013] and can take different forms. One typology from WHO (2005, p. 13) is built according to those committing violent acts, distinguishing self-inflicted violence from that perpetrated by family or community members (both acquaintances and strangers) and collective violence at social, economic, and political levels. Other typologies focus on the nature of violence being inflicted, and in general, four broad categories tend to be used by the majority of development and humanitarian agencies (Table 1).

Table 1. Four Types of Violence Occurring in Disaster Contexts

Form of Violence

Definitiona

Examples of Violence in Disasters and Environmental Change Contextsb

Physical violence

Any act that causes physical harm as a result of unlawful physical force, including assault, deprivation of liberty, and manslaughter

There is compelling evidence of physical abuse inflicted on women by their partners during slow-onset crises such as droughts in Australia (Whittenbury, 2013) or in sub-Saharan Africa (Epstein et al, 2020) and epidemics in Puerto Rico (Roure, 2020); of increased risks of intimate partner femicide after heat waves in Spain (Sanz-Barbero et al., 2018); and IPV after sudden-onset events in Vietnam and the Philippines (Nguyen & Rydstrom, 2018), in Iran (Sohrabizadeh, 2016), following bushfires in Australia (Parkinson, 2015; Parkinson & Zara, 2013), following cyclones in Bangladesh (Rezwana & Pain, 2021), following hurricanes in the United States (Anastario et al., 2009), and in states affected by tsunamis in India (Rao, 2020). In all these cases, violence occurred both prior to and after disasters.

Sexual violence

Any sexual act performed on an individual without their consent, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape; it also includes sexual trafficking and female genital mutilation

In the United States, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the rape rate among women displaced to trailer parks was 53.6 times higher than the highest baseline rate for Mississippi in 2004, with intimate partner rape being 16 times higher than the U.S. yearly rate (IFRC, 2012).

Sexual harassment against women, rapes, and domestic abuse were reported following the 2004 South Asian tsunami (Felten-Biermann, 2006; Fisher, 2010).

In Bangladesh, women and girls faced sexual harassment while going to the latrines at night or inside cyclone shelters (Biswas et al., 2015). Sexual violence also affected adolescent girls the most (both married and unmarried), as well as women with disability and sex workers during floods (Nasreen, 2010).

Psychological violence

Any act that causes psychological harm to an individual; it can take the form of verbal insult, isolation from friends and family, constant surveillance, strict detailed rules for behavior, or harassment

Exposure to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is associated with risks of physical and psychological abuse by partners in the United States (Harville et al., 2011).

Adolescent girls faced increased harassment during floods in Bangladesh, attributed to men loitering around more than usual because their work was interrupted (Rashid & Michaud, 2000).

Young climate activists, primarily adolescent girls, who have been leading the school strike movement against climate change since 2019 have become targets for online abuse (Pereznieto et al., 2020).

Violence against environmental and human rights defenders is increasing (Castañeda-Camey et al., 2020). The majority of victims of defenders’ homicides tend to be men, whereas threats of rape, intimidation, criminalization, and acts of misogyny are used disproportionately to control and silence women defenders (Barcia, 2017, cited in Castañeda-Camey et al., 2020).

Economic violence

Property damage; restricting access to financial resources, education, or the labor market; or not complying with economic responsibilities such as alimony

The ratio of women’s to men’s earnings in New Orleans declined from 81.6% prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to 61.8% in 2006, and IPV against women increased after the hurricane (Willinger, 2008).

Being denied the opportunity to work and earn an income by one’s husband can become life-threatening in times of stress and food security, such as in eastern Chad, where this was one of the most common forms of violence cited by women (Le Masson et al., 2019).

In post-tsunami Sri Lanka, women’s recovery was obstructed by (a) the shifting of property rights to men, (b) priority to restoring male-dominated livelihoods, (c) the risk of GBV in camps, and (d) the aid system perpetuating gender inequities (Jayasinghe, 2015).

aAdapted from EIGE (2017).

bSee also the systematic review by Thurston et al. (2021).

GBV, gender-based violence; IPV, intimate partner violence.

More academic research seems available on the impacts of disasters on reproductive health than there is for disasters and GBV, with studies conducted after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China (Liu et al., 2010), the 2004 South Asian tsunami (Carballo et al., 2005), and following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico (Welton et al., 2019). A survey conducted in the Texas Gulf Coast region following Hurricane Ike in 2008 also showed that Black women had more difficulty than their White and Hispanic counterparts accessing contraception despite the presence of reproductive health clinics (Leyser-Whalen et al., 2011). However, a significantly overlooked issue is obstetric violence, which affects adolescents and women during their gynecologist monitoring, pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. In emergency settings, women’s reproductive health needs are even less likely to be adequately met (Richter & Flowers, 2008, as cited in Leyser-Whalen et al., 2011), and the violence they might continue to suffer is not documented.

The four categories of violence are not mutually exclusive, and they can be labeled differently, for example, under the umbrella terms “domestic violence” or IPV (Figure 1). One of the reasons for distinguishing different forms of violence is to support the monitoring and comparability of data [European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), 2017] while stressing that IPV is characterized more by a continuum of violent acts that exacerbate one another rather than a single offense.

Figure 1. Typologies of gender-based violence to consider before, during, and after a crisis.

The Continuum of Violence: From Everyday Life to Crises

Studies on gender and disaster converge on the point that VAWG is a daily occurrence prior to a disaster and cases of violence post-disaster are not necessarily extraordinary events but, rather, more the continuum of a pervasive manifestation of inequality and discrimination. Discriminatory attitudes and social norms (i.e., the informal and formal laws, beliefs, and practices that help determine collective understanding of what are acceptable attitudes and behaviors; Harper et al., 2014) are major drivers of GBV (Heise & Kotsadam, 2015; Oswald-Spring, 2008). This is also one of the reasons why some forms of violence might not be perceived as such by both victims and perpetrators in the context in which they live (Rezwana & Pain, 2021). In all regions of the world, however, women and girls bear by far the greatest burden of intimate partner/family-related homicide, or rather femicide, with more than half (58%) of women intentionally killed, murdered by their partners or other family members (UNODC, 2019). Men are also more likely to be the perpetrators of homicide—out of all persons brought into formal contact with the police for intentional homicide worldwide in 2016, more than 90% were men (UNODC, 2019). Although the large majority of the literature on GBV in disasters documents VAWG, a small but increasing body of research is also examining the experiences of gender and sexual minorities prior, during, and after disasters (e.g., Dwyer & Woolf, 2018; Gaillard et al., 2017; Roeder, 2014; Roure, 2020).

Only a few studies have delved into men’s and boys’ experiences of perpetrating and suffering from GBV post-disasters (Austin, 2016; de Alwis, 2016; Molin, 2018; Nguyen & Rydstrom, 2018; Temple et al., 2011). Factors associated with men’s use of violence at the individual level include having experienced violence in childhood, work-related stress, expressing rigid gender attitudes (Barker et al., 2011), or consuming alcohol (WHO, 2013). Moreover, men who face unemployment, who own a gun (especially in the United States, South Africa, and in conflict and post-conflict settings), or who suffer mental health problems seem to be more likely to commit femicide (WHO, 2013). At the societal level, gender inequalities, including low number of women in elected government and reductions in government social spending on key sectors such as health and education, are also driving risks of femicides (WHO, 2013). All these risk factors have the potential to worsen in disaster situations.

In contrast, and although post-disaster VAWG might be the continuation of everyday domestic abuse, a few studies have shown that victims might also be women who are members of relief programs. In Japan, sexual and physical violence against women was reported in the aftermath of earthquakes in 1997 and 2011, although social pressure impeded victims’ capacities to report abuse and for any information to be adequately collected (Saito, 2012). In the case of the 2011 east Japan disaster, not only was domestic violence more frequently reported to consultation services but also young women, both evacuees and volunteers working in the evacuation centers, reported experiencing sexual harassment as well (Saito, 2012). Reports of violence occurring in emergency shelters, such as in Japan, suggest two points. First, the displacement and gathering of disaster survivors in close proximity, even temporarily, might make everyday abuse against women more known to others. Second, reports of violence inflicted upon volunteers involved in relief efforts suggest that forms of violence other than domestic abuse also take place and target women volunteers. The latter point is documented in Rachel Luft’s (2008) examination of race and gender intersectionality in the recovery phase of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Despite the challenge of collecting information about cases of violence due to fears of reprisal, shame or stigma on behalf of survivors, as well as self-blame or confusion regarding what constitutes assault, Luft relied on participant observation during 5-month post-disaster and follow-up interviews to gather information. Her findings uncovered several dozen cases of sexual assault against volunteers of a grassroots relief organization, all but one of whom were women, plus one transgender volunteer, and White, except for one survivor. Critically, participant discourse criminalized the surrounding Black community, although almost every accused perpetrator was a nonlocal White man.

Gaps in Methods and Data

Studies on disasters, climate change, and VAWG seek to document cases of abuse that occur in crisis situations, whether existing violence is aggravated or new forms emerge. They also explore why violence takes place, the risk factors, and related changes in social structures. Quantitative analyses remain scarce due to the lack of systematic collection by governments and relief agencies of pre- and post-disaster gender-disaggregated data on GBV or simply because most incidents are unlikely to be reported to the authorities (EIGE, 2017; Rezwana & Pain, 2021). Rosborough and colleagues (2009) further stress the methodological challenges, including difficulties in accurately capturing GBV survivors’ experiences and inconsistent definitions of GBV—what constitutes abuse and according to whose definition and the variations of interpretations across settings. Cerna-Turrof et al. (2019) conducted a systematic review of the influence of disaster exposure on violence against children and reported that the heterogeneity and limitations in existing quantitative assessments prevented them from drawing firm conclusions on a positive association.

Hence, the majority of research in this domain is qualitative and takes place at the household and community level through in-depth case studies. This localized level of inquiry also responds to the objective of gender and disaster scholars to “contextualize gender”—that is, in historically and culturally specific contexts that shape social interactions which themselves reproduce and institutionalize discrimination (Enarson & Phillips, 2008). This requires methods that are sensitive to the conditions of disaster survivors, particularly when exploring issues of IPV. Often, due to ethical concerns, researchers choose not to conduct surveys directly with potential GBV survivors but, rather, collect data from grassroots organizations, service providers, and volunteers in relief programs (e.g., Fisher, 2010). Studies rely significantly on field and participant observation, in-depth interviews or life stories, focus group discussions, ethnographic research, and photovoice projects (e.g., MANTRA Project, 2017). Some studies have reflected on the processes of researching issues of GBV in post-disaster contexts (Sloand et al., 2015) or on the reliability of certain methodologies such as the “neighborhood method” to measure GBV in disaster settings based on secondary reporting (Stark et al., 2020).

Overall, studies that provide empirical evidence of long-lasting changes in power dynamics are scarce. These kinds of changes are often only uncovered through in-depth, qualitative, and longitudinal or immersive research. The scarcity of information on positive changes following a disaster might also be due to the fact that organizations that provide humanitarian assistance collect data solely through vulnerability assessments, which often do not integrate gender and power analyses. The priority of emergency programs consists of reporting what has been destroyed and lost in order to provide quickly for the needs of those affected (Fordham et al., 2006). When agencies report an improvement in the living conditions of, and relations between, community members, this is often done to note how their programs have supported improved conditions rather than to provide an analysis of changed power dynamics. The latter could also take years to unfold—far beyond the usual time frame of development projects. The more endogenous adaptive strategies developed by community members without external assistance receive far less attention (Gaillard et al., 2019). Despite the critical insights they provide, gender-sensitive assessments and the collection of sex, age, education, income, and disability-disaggregated data are not systematically conducted before or in the aftermath of a disaster [International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), 2016; Morchain et al., 2015]. Yet, more gender-responsive needs assessments are critical to uncover potential coping mechanisms that trigger GBV and that could therefore undermine relief efforts. To address this gap, an increasing number of methodological resources have been developed by practitioners and researchers alike to support the assessment of GBV in humanitarian and development interventions [ActionAid International, 2014; Haiti Gender Shadow Report, 2010; IFRC, 2018b; Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), 2015; Morchain & Kelsey, 2016; Sterrett, 2016].

Post-Crisis (Lack of) Changes and Violence

In times of crisis, social norms are played out within a new space, opening up the possibility for producing alternative social interactions. These can lead to opportunities for women, men, and others to take on new responsibilities. However, the increased risk of GBV challenges this possibility, suggesting that existing socioeconomic and gender-based inequalities, discriminatory gendered norms, power abuse, and the resulting VAWG are all reinforced. The uncovering of such experiences is therefore critical for disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA). Both DRR and CCA aim to alleviate worsening conditions in the aftermath of disasters or due to environmental changes and not to leave those traditionally marginalized even more vulnerable to subsequent risks. In addition to researching whether GBV increases during and after a crisis, scholars in gender and disaster also increasingly interrogate if changes triggered by a disaster situation affect people’s interactions, their privileges (or lack of), income, and power; if any changes in roles or power dynamics are short term or long-lasting; how coping mechanisms influence the occurrence of violence; and the role of relief programs in protecting (or not) disaster and GBV survivors.

In a review of 17 qualitative studies on increased VAWG among disaster survivors, Thurston et al. (2021) identified three pathways: (a) an increase of stressors that trigger violence, (b) an increase of enabling environments for violence to occur, and (c) an aggravation of underlying drivers of VAWG. The following section addresses the third pathway by highlighting how the lack of change in gender roles and power maintains the underlying drivers of VAWG. The subsequent sections combine to cover the first and second pathways.

Elusive Changes in Gender Roles and Power

Through disrupting the “normal” functioning of communities affected, disaster situations bring changes at multiple levels—that is, socioeconomic, political, and institutional. These changes may result from disaster impacts but also from the presence of relief programs. In the recovery process, the influx of humanitarian assistance means that funding becomes available to help reconstruction, from providing cash transfers to implementing protection programs. This is especially the case if disasters have destroyed much of the infrastructure and services that were initially improperly designed, creating an opportunity for “building back better” (Christoplos, 2006). Disaster recovery may open up new networks of support or pathways to previously unattainable opportunities (Bradshaw & Fordham, 2013). Because they disturb the “everyday normal,” disastrous events have been framed as open windows of opportunity to change dominant ways of thinking and acting (Birkmann et al., 2010). They can destabilize processes of reproduction of gender roles and routines, whereby affected people, particularly women, can seize opportunities to transgress gender norms—for example, by developing new skills through reconstruction work or by involvement in community-based relief projects (Enarson, 1998).

However, the nature and scale of disasters may influence the potential for such opportunities, and more research is needed to understand if sudden-onset events, for instance, are more likely to “impose” changes given the abruptness of impacts they can generate. In the case of slow-onset disasters, such as droughts in Kenya, changes in the roles of men and women in agriculture have been observed in CARE programs, with men increasingly taking on agricultural roles traditionally perceived to be women’s responsibilities, such as weeding, harvesting, and processing agricultural products (Otzelberger, 2016) or collecting water and fuel despite this being originally perceived as in the domain of women and girls (Webb, 2016). However, to what extent changes in gender roles tackle discriminatory gendered norms, reduce women’s unpaid household work, or do not lead to backlash is underdocumented. One study in Tanzania revealed that if men increasingly take on the role of fetching water, particularly during drought periods, they link this task to the cash economy by selling water to businesses and households (Van Aelst, 2016). Therefore, the perceived changes in division of labor and “productive” use of water do not structurally transform gendered norms and the way women’s traditional tasks are (not) valued. Gender analyses typically ask whether men taking on women’s traditional roles benefits women’s conditions and positions—whether it reduces women’s workload and improves their control over resources and their power in decision-making processes, which is why they are so important for relief and recovery processes (Morchain et al., 2015).

Such analyses, which are increasing in DRR programming and disaster or climate-related research, allow for a better understanding of inequalities in gender roles that remain or even worsen after a disaster (Fordham et al., 2006). For instance, following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, women in the evacuation centers were required to prepare meals for which they received no compensation. Male evacuees, on the other hand, were not expected to contribute to this task and had the option of collecting and removing rubbish, for which they received compensation (Saito, 2012). The reliance on familial support after a crisis may also reinforce established power relations (Hoffman, 1998, as cited in Bradshaw & Fordham, 2013). Gender analyses also discuss differences of perceptions of what changed. For example, in Nicaragua, many women believed their status had changed after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, but their male counterparts disagreed; Bradshaw and Linneker (2009) examined what this indicated about the women’s position in their community.

Overall, women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities experience a re-emphasis of their often lower household status and community position in times of emergencies and also a worsening of their exposure to GBV. In Haiti, women living in camps after the earthquake in 2010 had to cope with male-dominated committees controlling aid distribution, which often forced women to negotiate through the use of sexual favors in order to meet basic needs and obtain access to supplies (Horton, 2012). In Fiji, Dwyer and Woolf (2018) documented experiences of sexual and gender minorities following tropical cyclone Winston in 2016. Not only did sexual and gender minorities face violence and harassment on a daily basis but also they were subject to blame by other community members for bringing Winston to Fiji as God’s punishment for their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Moreover, CARE’s programming in Ethiopia reported the influence of gender norms on food distribution within households, where men and children younger than age 3 years were supposed to eat first, followed by boys and girls, and finally women (CARE Ethiopia, 2016, p. 3).

Stressors and Mechanisms That Reinforce Gender-Based Violence

With the mainstreaming of gender-responsive methodologies in the work of humanitarian and development practitioners, new sources of evidence often gathered by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) complement the academic literature based on qualitative studies to highlight linkages between disaster survivors’ coping mechanisms and GBV. This section discusses the first pathway identified in Thurston et al. (2021) between disaster exposure and an increase of stressors that trigger VAWG. Stressors resulting from displacement are discussed in the following section.

Children Dropping out of School

With the additional pressure of climate change in regions affected by high levels of poverty and chronic food insecurity, gender analyses tend to report the risk of children dropping out of school in order to support their families (Dankelman, 2010; Pereznieto et al., 2020). In regions of Ethiopia and the Sahel, droughts typically result in high absenteeism of girls, who are asked to help with collecting water and caring for other family members or sent out to work as domestic maids. Boys’ attendance is also affected because they are expected to look for pasture and water for livestock or seek livelihood opportunities away from home (CARE Ethiopia, 2016; Le Masson et al., 2020; Webb, 2016). Where food and water scarcity require all family members to search for resources, children can be left alone and unprotected, exposed to risk of sexual violence and trafficking for exploitation (Standing et al., 2016; UNICEF, 2015). In Chad, the lack of access to education for children, particularly for girls, not only undermines their socioeconomic prospects but also aggravates their exposure to a myriad of forms of violence, from denial of resources to sexual abuse (Le Masson et al., 2019).

Child and Forced Marriages

Directly linked to a drop in school attendance is the increase of child marriage following a disaster, with evidence from Kenya (North, 2010); India and Sri Lanka (United Nations Population Fund, 2012); Bangladesh (Verma et al., 2013); and Indonesia, Lao PDR, and the Philippines (IFRC, 2018a). In Zimbabwe, some families marry off their daughters earlier than usual during droughts to reduce the size of the household and the number of people to feed, and they use the dowry provided by the groom’s family as a source of cash (Otzelberger, 2014). Although this coping mechanism might enhance the capacities of households, young women and girls who enter marriages are forced to abandon their education, face early pregnancy and associated health risks, and generally suffer from a lower status within their new families (CARE International UK, 2015). After the 2004 tsunami in India, Sri Lanka, and Aceh, not only was the mortality rate much higher for women than men but also many girls and young women were forced to marry older “tsunami widowers,” sometimes in order to receive state subsidies for marrying and starting a family (Felten-Biermann, 2006).

Marriage is a risk factor for IPV (WHO, 2013), yet the literature provides different perspectives on the protective or harmful role of marital status. On the one hand, the identity and status women attain through marriage can offer economic and social protections (Rashid & Michaud, 2000; Solotaroff & Prabha Pande, 2014), which can help following a disaster. In South Asia, women who are no longer married—that is, divorcees and widows, whose number is likely to increase in parallel to disasters’ death toll—face different and sometimes unique forms of violence (from social stigma to widow burning) (Solotaroff & Prabha Pande, 2014). On the other hand, some NGOs have stressed the danger of labeling child marriage as a form of protection, often voiced by family members to keep the “honor” of their daughters, while it covers up sexual violence against girls (CARE International UK, 2015).

Abuse of Alcohol and Drugs

The use of alcohol or drugs, already a widespread health issue, is often suggested as a coping mechanism for disaster survivors to deal with stress as well as a risk factor contributing to increased VAWG (Fothergill, 2008). For example, a post-Cyclone Nargis assessment in Myanmar noted a perceived increase in alcohol consumption and in domestic violence after the disaster (Women’s Protection Technical Working Group, 2010). Post-disaster, men are more likely to turn to gambling, alcohol, and perpetrating violence due to the threat to their masculinity through the undermining of their traditional role as protectors and providers (Skinner, 2011). In Australia, a study investigating the impacts of drought showed that women were overloaded by work, caring, and financial responsibilities and became increasingly financially responsible for family sustenance as farm incomes declined (Whittenbury, 2013). Associated income-related stress led to an increase in alcohol and drug consumption by men as a coping mechanism, resulting in increased physical and emotional abuse against women, increased financial control by men, and increased isolation of women (Whittenbury, 2013). Similar coping pathways involving alcohol and resulting in VAWG have been observed in Uganda (Opondo et al., 2016), where a vulnerability assessment by Mercy Corps (2014) noted that many men, who had lost their livelihoods, were unwilling to engage in agriculture, which they considered “women’s work.” Not having an alternative form of work, however, led to rising levels of idleness, alcoholism, and GBV. Fothergill (2008) suggests that although the occurrence of a disaster and the loss of a job are often used as an excuse by perpetrators of violence, “crisis conditions do not cause the abuse, nor do they cause men to lose control” (p. 135). In other words, GBV would not occur if unequal power relations and discriminatory norms condoning violence in the home were not already in place prior to a disaster (Fisher, 2010; Fothergill, 2008).

Increased Displacement, Migration, and Violence

Migration, both seasonal and permanent, is a coping strategy for many people affected by disasters and environmental changes. It can be a life-saving mechanism to flee danger or violence, and it can provide new sources of livelihoods, particularly for men, who tend to rely on this strategy the most because their mobility is not restricted by gender norms. However, patterns of displacement depend on the nature of hazards, the location and socioeconomic characteristics of affected communities, and the gender divide (Millock, 2015). Issues of GBV in relation to migration can occur while people are on the move but also in displaced settings and camps or in the place of origin where migrants have left family members behind.

Experiences of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and refugees and the protection issues that they face in temporary housing or shelters tend to be covered by a large body of knowledge because displacement also occurs as a result of armed conflicts and poverty, not just natural-hazards related disasters. Situations of high social and economic stress found in temporary housing and shelters compound pressures on displaced people who have often witnessed a disaster, survived attacks, and experienced the trauma of displacement. The combination of these risk factors underpins increased levels of GBV in displaced settings. In addition, cramped living circumstances, poor lighting and lack of security at water and sanitation facilities (Felten-Biermann, 2006; Rashid & Michaud, 2000), and the dearth of channels in which to report violence, sexual exploitation, and cases of early marriage leave women and girls at higher risk of abuse (Asgary et al., 2013; CARE, 2014; IFRC, 2012; Jayasinghe, 2015; Standing et al., 2016). In Haiti in 2010, at least 242 cases of rape against women were recorded in relief camps during the first 150 days following the earthquake (Amnesty International, 2011). In Afghanistan, Majidi and Hennion (2014) found that 64% of surveyed women reported domestic violence during displacement, often as a result of increased stress experienced by husbands. Displaced women and girls faced a higher risk of forced prostitution and forced marriage; 27% of girls were forced to marry against their will, and widows were frequently forced to marry a relative of their late husband. Daughters were also targeted for low-cost marriage by outsiders taking advantage of IDPs. IDPs are therefore entrapped in situations of acute psychological or physical violence with very little information on ways to escape (Majidi & Hennion, 2014). Fisher (2010) also highlighted the issue of long-term abuse: Although opportunistic perpetrators of sexual violence took advantage of the initial chaos following the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, domestic violence continued during rehabilitation and reconstruction for several years. In contrast, earthquake-related internal displacement in Haiti did not appear as a driver of long-term violence against children (Cerna-Turoff et al., 2020).

The scarcity of natural resources, particularly in displaced settings characterized by high levels of poverty, complicates the tasks of girls and women, often deemed responsible for fetching water or collecting fuel. The increased demand for water in arid and semi-arid areas from displaced people in communities that rely on wells, for instance, augments queues, time spent collecting water, and risks of disputes or harassment. This is documented in studies in Mali and Burkina Faso (Le Masson et al., 2020) and in Ethiopia, where some girls’ strategies to get water at night conflict with the risk of being exposed to sexual assault (CARE Ethiopia, 2016). In a study reporting the experiences of refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, and Eastern Sudan living in camps in Ethiopia and in settlements in Uganda, Afifi and colleagues (2012) stressed the significance of other forms of violence: According to respondents, protracted conflict exacerbates the effects of climate variability and people’s vulnerability to other more acute perceived risks, including looting of crops by government troops, taking of children for military service, or violence toward family members and communities.

Finally, the post-disaster migration of men documented across many contexts (Enarson, 2000) means that other household members who stay behind can experience an increase in their workload and are forced to look for new opportunities to generate an income even though they are less mobile and less able to migrate outside the impacted area (CARE Ethiopia, 2016). In the Borana pastoral region of Ethiopia, some women reported benefitting from greater mobility and greater control over income due to new non-livestock livelihood activities, but their workloads also increased and they reported observing less solidarity between community members (Ridgewell et al., 2007). Furthermore, research in Chad showed that economic violence against women prevails even when men migrate: Gender norms and controlling behaviors dictate that women should not engage in income-generating opportunities, even when men remarry elsewhere or do not return (Le Masson et al., 2019).

The Failure of Protective Systems

Deaths caused by disasters and displacement increase the number of widows and orphans, result in the loss of support networks, and often shatter both formal and informal protection mechanisms (Amnesty International, 2011). While VAWG increases during emergencies, means of protection against violence diminish (FAO, 2010; IASC, 2015; IFRC, 2011, 2015). Traditional, community, or state-based support services may be disrupted, less available, and underresourced, increasing difficulty in dealing with violence (IFRC, 2016). This is particularly the case for GBV prevention and response systems, which tend not to be considered important by the public or by governments in general, let alone in the context of disasters and environmental changes. In contrast, where support for GBV survivors already exists, it is likely to resume, perhaps in different ways, after a disaster, as in the case of local shelters in New Orleans that supported both previous and additional GBV survivors (Jenkins & Phillips, 2008).

The lack of protection systems, whether disrupted by disasters or nonexistent in the first place, contributes to increase enabling environments for VAWG to occur, which is the second pathway stressed by Thurston et al. (2021). For example, the destruction of houses and resulting shortage of shelters can restrict women’s ability to leave violent relationships (Enarson, 1999). Following Hurricane Katrina in 2015, some women who were victims of domestic violence prior to the disaster had no other choice but to return to their abusive spouse due to the loss of housing, disrupted familial and social networks, and the need to access relief aid (Jenkins & Phillips, 2008). Moreover, the low social status and/or loss of income and social support of many women following a disaster make them a target of violence because perpetrators know such women are less likely to report abuse or seek assistance, especially if the legal and judicial system is not functioning (Amnesty International, 2009; CARE, 2014). In Australia, Debra Parkinson (2015)’s thesis examined the increase in domestic violence following the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 and found that inadequate response characterized by the lack of statistics on domestic violence in the aftermath of the disaster, the neglect of this issue in recovery and reconstruction operations, and the responses to women’s reports of violence against them by legal, community and health professionals all contributed to silence violence survivors.

Discriminatory gender norms can also be replicated by relief programs (Felten-Biermann, 2006). Following Cyclone Haiyan in the Philippines, Sherwood and colleagues (2015) reported that despite many women becoming the main breadwinners for their families after losing their husbands, some organizations that conducted surveys to inform the provision of housing assistance only asked men in their communities about their needs. Even worse are cases of GBV in which sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of children have been perpetrated by humanitarian staff, security forces, or local leaders after disasters in exchange for delivering aid (Castañeda-Camey et al., 2020). Hence, although the literature shows the harmful impacts of disasters on social relations, the worsening of gender inequalities such as VAWG may increase as a negative consequence of inadequate humanitarian response rather than as a direct consequence of the disaster. In Samoa, after the tsunami of 2009 and Cyclone Evan in 2012, a study conducted by the IFRC (2016) revealed that the unequal distribution of relief supplies created disillusionment and community tensions, indirectly increasing the risk of physical violence among intimate partners. Risk of domestic violence was predominant in urban areas, where affected people had to cohabit for extended periods with host communities in crowded spaces with inadequate lighting and sanitation facilities. Young girls and adolescents were particularly vulnerable to GBV (perpetrated by male adolescents and adults) due to reduced parental supervision during the day, when parents typically left to clean up and rebuild their damaged houses (IFRC, 2016).

Therefore, whether or not the occurrence of violence increases or remains at the same level, the fact is that GBV survivors are unlikely to seek help (Gender and Disaster Pod, 2016; IFRC, 2016), protection support might be unavailable or inadequate, and the discrepancy between the prevalence of violence and the lack of protection is exacerbated in the aftermath of a disaster. Only a limited number of studies have focused on local responses to GBV—for example, the grassroots mobilization to organize self-defense or safe places against VAWG in Nepal (Standing et al., 2016) and the role of women’s refuges and social workers in attending to the needs of GBV survivors following the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand (True, 2013).

Evidence for Action

Studies on the linkages between GBV, disasters, and climate change converge on the fact that post-disaster violence against women, girls, and gender and sexual minorities is the continuum of a pervasive manifestation of inequalities and discrimination that precede emergencies. The disruption triggered by disasters can erode interpersonal relationships, and the combination of community-based coping mechanisms and external assistance that form the overall response to disasters also impacts gender relations. But the bulk of available studies show that many post-disaster contexts are characterized by the aggravation of existing discriminatory norms, sometimes due to coping mechanisms that exacerbate the occurrence of VAWG and/or the lack of protective systems and preventive actions.

Understanding the pre-existing gender norms and power relations and how crises might provide opportunities for social change is fundamental to inform development plans, disaster risk reduction, and climate change adaptation programs that address inequalities. Overall, however, post-disaster research lacks insight into social processes that occur after a crisis, at different timescales (immediately after the disaster or several years into the recovery phase), and how they reinforce or challenge power structures and related GBV. Even within the same disaster setting, there might be different types of community recovery (Jenkins & Phillips, 2008) and different enabling factors, and this information is crucial to inform disaster plans and response, as well as GBV prevention and response.

Pre- and post-disaster vulnerability and capacity assessments should systematically consider the many dimensions of violence—not just sexual and physical violence but also psychological and economic abuse that often occur in intimate relationships. More broadly, research in this area must reflect on the distinction between the normative framework of violence and its multiple forms that underpin enquiries and the narratives of disaster survivors, who might not consider themselves as victims of abuse.

Overall, avenues for future research include the importance of understanding how households’ and communities’ adaptive strategies to risks have the potential to transform gender relations and social norms, in which contexts and under which circumstances. An intersectional lens might also help gender and disaster studies focus less on “women and girls” as one and more on the social identities and conditions that influence gender relations (Buckingham & Le Masson, 2017). This would also support more research on the experiences of divorced or widowed women and men, whose numbers increase following disasters, and those of sexual and gender minorities.

Although the availability of (more) information on pre- and post-disaster GBV, specific to different contexts, is on an upward trend, this research also needs to inform public health, disaster risk management/reduction, and climate resilience programming. This is where action research can contribute by providing case studies on promising pathways for communicating GBV-related data to practitioners and grassroots initiatives on GBV prevention pre- and post-disaster; examining how research in this area is being used (or ignored); as well as exploring the outcomes of humanitarian and development projects that have integrated GBV prevention and response in their activities.

Further Reading

  • Enarson, E., & Chakrabarti, P. D. (Eds.). (2009). Women, gender and disaster: Global issues and initiatives. SAGE.
  • Enarson, E., & Pease, B. (2016). Men, masculinities and disasters. Routledge.
  • Le Masson, V., Lim, S., Budimir, M., & Podboj, J. S. (2016). Disasters and violence against women and girls. ODI.
  • Phillips, B. D., & Morrow, B. H. (Eds.). (2008). Women and disasters: From theory to practice. Xlibris.
  • Sety, M., James, K., & Breckenridge, J. (2014). Understanding the risk of domestic violence during and post natural disasters: Literature review. In L. W. Roeder (Ed.), Issues of gender and sexual orientation in humanitarian emergencies (pp. 99–111). Springer.

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