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Violence prevention: Looking beyond the immediate impact of major or ‘silent’ disasters

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The consequences of a disaster often live on beyond the moment of crisis that we all hear about. For those at the centre of a disaster, life becomes ever more stressful, existing vulnerabilities are amplified, and the institutions, groups and individuals that may once have offered support or protection can find themselves overwhelmed and understaffed. The result is often a sharp rise in interpersonal violence. Such violence can be abuse, exploitation, harassment, discrimination and rejection from other survivors, or even from those who are supposed to help. In response the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is making violence prevention and protection an integral part of its disaster response operations.

Research has shown that those at the highest risk of violence following disaster are women and children. Following the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, for example, reports of violence against women and girls soared, with 60 per cent of those questioned reporting that they were worried about violence within their homes, and 70 per cent saying they felt less safe than before the quake. A recent report reviewing this situation two years after the earthquake identified people most at-risk to sexual violence are young women without jobs.

Sandra Gutiérrez from the IFRC’s Principles and Values department, said that disaster not only puts tremendous stress on individuals, but also on the social and economic structures of a city or community. “In the post-earthquake Haitian context, loss of homes, sense of community and livelihoods or subsistence can give rise to increased tension between individuals and within communities resulting in abusive or exploitative behaviour,” she said. “This include gender-based violence, or women and girls resorting to transactional sex as a survival mechanism.”

In Haiti, a number of approaches have been used to increase safety including education, beneficiary communications and more practical solutions. “Something as simple as safe messaging to affected communities can have an impact on people and their communities to reduce the risk of increased levels of violence,” Gutiérrez said. “But it’s also vital to make sure there is adequate shelter for displaced people and safe spaces for women and children. Shelter solutions should also make provision for properly lit pathways, and separate washing facilities for women and men.”

Violence awareness and conflict resolution have become important tools for disaster workers in the field. “People working in disaster response need to understand the context in which violence is likely to happen, who the most vulnerable people are, recognize the signs and, crucially, be able to offer the correct support and advice,” Gutiérrez said.

Only a few months before Hurricane Sandy hit Haiti, in August 2012, teams from the Haitian Red Cross and the IFRC organized the distribution of relief items in the neighbourhood of Cité de Soleil following the passage of tropical storm Isaac. Priority was given to women, and the distribution site was made into a ‘Safe Space’, an opportunity for the women of the camp to gather and speak freely amongst themselves without fear.

At the national level, the Haitian Red Cross Society is part of the National Emergency Operation Centre under the Department of Civil Protection. Lessons learned from the response to Isaac and Sandy in 2012 indicate that protection concerns, including the prevention and mitigation of interpersonal violence, need to be more fully integrated. They are currently working to address this issue with better tools and training to be better prepared for the next hurricane season, or any other disaster that may strike.

Violence after any catastrophe is a grave reality, and yet it often goes unnoticed. Read more about the Red Cross Red Crescent’s response to violence and disaster here: “Predictable, Preventable. Best practices for addressing interpersonal and self-directed violence during and after disasters”.