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Gendered violence in natural disasters: Learning from New Orleans, Haiti and Christchurch

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Abstract

Why are women so vulnerable to violence and death as a result of disaster compared with men? This article investigates how global environmental forces in the form of natural disasters from floods, droughts and famines to earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes affect women and men differently. Disasters are known to have direct and indirect impacts on gender-based violence particularly against women and girls, revealing a pattern of heightened violence and vulnerability in their aftermath. These gendered impacts are directly relevant to social work theory, practice and advocacy, which seek to promote social wellbeing and to prevent violence in homes and communities during and in the aftermath of disasters. The article argues that women’s unequal economic and social status relative to men before a disaster strikes determines the extent of their vulnerability to violence during and after a crisis. If gender-based violence and women’s particular needs are not addressed in disaster preparedness, disaster recovery plans and humanitarian assistance, then women and girls’ vulnerability will increase. The article offers some lessons based on primary research of responses to the 2010-2011 Christchurch earthquakes against the backdrop of what we know about the responses to an earthquake of similar magnitude in Haiti in 2009. It draws implications from this research for social work theory, practice and advocacy, highlighting the importance of ensuring that future disaster planning and decision making is gender-sensitive.
PAGE 78 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK ISSUE 25(2), 2013
Gendered violence in natural
disasters: Learning from
New Orleans, Haiti and Christchurch
Jacqui True
Jacqui True is a Professor of Politics and International Relations at Monash University, Melbourne,
Australia. She is a specialist in gender mainstreaming and global governance, feminist research
methodologies, and women, peace and security. Her book, The Political Economy of Violence against
Women (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) recently won the American Political Science
Association 2012 Prize for the best book in human rights.
Abstract
Why are women so vulnerable to violence and death as a result of disaster compared with
men? This article investigates how global environmental forces in the form of natural di-
sasters from oods, droughts and famines to earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes aect
women and men dierently. Disasters are known to have direct and indirect impacts on gen-
der-based violence particularly against women and girls, revealing a pattern of heightened
violence and vulnerability in their aftermath. These gendered impacts are directly relevant
to social work theory, practice and advocacy, which seek to promote social wellbeing and
to prevent violence in homes and communities during and in the aftermath of disasters.
The article argues that women’s unequal economic and social status relative to men before
a disaster strikes determines the extent of their vulnerability to violence during and after a
crisis. If gender-based violence and women’s particular needs are not addressed in disas-
ter preparedness, disaster recovery plans and humanitarian assistance, then women and
girls’ vulnerability will increase. The article oers some lessons based on primary research
of responses to the 2010-2011 Christchurch earthquakes against the backdrop of what we
know about the responses to an earthquake of similar magnitude in Haiti in 2009. It draws
implications from this research for social work theory, practice and advocacy, highlighting the
importance of ensuring that future disaster planning and decision making is gender-sensitive.
Introduction
This article investigates how global environmental forces in the form of natural disasters,
from oods, droughts and famines to earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes, aect women
and men dierently. The gender impacts of disasters is directly relevant to social work theory,
practice and advocacy with the aim of promoting social wellbeing and preventing violence
in homes and communities during and in the aftermath of disasters. Disasters are known
to have direct and indirect impacts on gender-based violence, particularly against women
and girls, revealing a pattern of heightened violence and vulnerability in their aftermath.
For instance, the death rate of women after the 2004 Indian Ocean ‘South Asian tsunami’
was at least three times higher than that of men in some communities (Oxfam International,
ISSUE 25(2), 2013 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK PAGE 79
2005; Fisher, 2010). There is good, albeit disturbing, evidence that if women and girls survive
disasters, they face a greater risk of experiencing gender-based and sexual violence during
disaster recovery.
But why are women so vulnerable to violence and death as a result of disaster compared
with men? I argue that there is a political economy of gender inequality at work that ex-
plains pervasive violence against women and girls: the major reason women and girls are
especially vulnerable during a crisis and that violence against them increases is because of
their economic and social status before disaster strikes. It is a familiar but no less troubling
story. Women are generally poorer than men, they do not own land and are less likely than
men to have an education or access to health care. Due to cultural constraints they are often
less mobile, and they have less of a political voice in environmental planning and decision
making. Yet women are not just victims, they are also survivors who can help countries
recover more quickly from natural disasters and conict. If they are included in disaster
preparedness and planning decisions, women can nd ways to prevent and protect all
members of communities from the worst eects of future disasters. However, women are
often excluded from policymaking on environmental and disaster issues. Gender-based
violence and women’s particular needs in the post-disaster phase, which if not addressed
increase their risk of violence further, are frequently neglected by disaster recovery plans
and humanitarian assistance.
The article is organised in three parts. The rst part conceptualises natural disasters as
social disasters that magnify existing inequalities and oppressions within social structures
and whose severity is largely a result of political and economic conditions that are humanly
constructed. The second part highlights the cases of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and
the 2010-11 earthquakes in Christchurch, considering how far and in what ways these very
dierent societies and their gender structures accentuated or mitigated further gendered
inequalities and violence against women during their respective disasters. Given the anal-
ysis of gendered violence during and after disasters, the third part of the article argues that
gender-sensitive planning and deliberation involving women can prevent this violence and
oers some lessons based on primary research of responses to the 2010-2011 Christchurch
earthquakes against the backdrop of what we know about the responses to an earthquake
of similar magnitude in Haiti in 2009. The article concludes by drawing some implications
from these natural disasters and their eects on gendered violence for social work theory,
practice and advocacy with respect to future disaster planning and decision making.
Natural disasters are social disasters
Social scientists contend that there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ or inevitable disaster
(Squires and Hartman, 2006). That is because past and present political decisions and eco-
nomic interests shape every phase of a disaster. They aect the preparedness and planning
for disaster, the causes of disaster, and its impact on human survival and well-being, as
well as government and humanitarian responses to disaster in the immediate and recon-
struction phases. Political decisions and economic interests aect the magnitude of human
1 Some scholars working out of complexity/chaos theory even argue that natural disasters such as earthquakes
and tsunamis are ‘man-made’ in that they are created by interactions between crisis drivers and human activ-
ities (Kiel, 1994; Warren, Fath, & Streeten, 1998).
PAGE 80 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK ISSUE 25(2), 2013
loss in earthquakes and tsunami, just as they may be deeply implicated in the causes of
disasters, such as transport catastrophes or gradually rising temperatures and sea levels
due to global warming that may result in the obliteration of human settlements and/or
their means of sustenance.1 Regardless of the timeframe, whether a disaster’s impact is
sudden or unfolds gradually, studies of both developed and developing countries note
that it is the most marginalised groups that tend to suer the worst eects of disaster. At
the same time, the World Bank reports that 95% of disaster-related deaths occur among
the 66% of the world’s population that live in the poorer countries (Enarson, 2000, p. 3).
Consider the loss of life and devastation caused by an earthquake of approximately the
same magnitude a year apart in two countries; one in Haiti, an island country and one of
the poorest in the world, and one in Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand,
a wealthy OECD island country. In the former, people died, violence reported including
rape and sexual violence (Amnesty International, 2011). In the latter less than 200 people
were killed, and some cases of quake-related domestic violence were reported. Despite
the lesser loss of life, the insurance claims from the Christchurch quake are the largest the
world has seen from a disaster, precisely because of the wealth and development of that
city.2 Thus, from the perspective of understanding the human world, disasters provide us
with unique insight into social structure, inequalities and the prevailing norms shaping
human behaviour.
Disasters systematically discriminate against groups with lesser capabilities, resources
and opportunities (Neumayer & Plümper, 2007). Their negative eects are multiplied for
some groups and minimised for other, usually better-resourced, groups. Indeed an individ-
ual’s chances of surviving a disaster are largely dependent on his or her social location with
respect to gender, race, ethnicity and social class. These social hierarchies, which often lead
to exploitation and violence, are typically deepened through disaster. In short, vulnerability
to death and violence is highly dierentiated; proximity to disaster and the ability to an-
ticipate, cope with, protect one-self and recover in a disaster’s aftermath (with support for
evacuation through to insurance for rebuilding) are ultimately socially-determined. Given
that gender inequalities exist between women and men in every country in the world, it is
not surprising, then, to nd that disasters have a greater eect on women’s mortality com-
pared with men’s and that violence against women increases in the aftermath of disaster
(Rivers, 1982; Seager, 2006).
Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper (2007) analysed the gender dierences in nat-
ural disasters based on a sample of 141 countries in which natural disasters occurred
from 1981 to 2002 (the period for which data existed). They found that natural disasters
lower the life expectancy of women drastically more than that of men, and as the disaster
intensies, so too does this eect. In their modelling, women and children are up to 14
times more likely than men to die in a natural disaster. Where there is greater gender
equality, the gap between men’s and women’s expected mortality is less. But as pre-di-
saster gender inequalities increase so too does the number of women compared with
men likely to be killed in a disaster. In Neumayer and Plumper’s words (2007, p. 551), it
is ‘the socially-constructed gender-specic vulnerability of females built into everyday
socio-economic patterns that leads to the relatively higher female disaster mortality rates
2 How a country’s low level of economic development, poor quality of governance institutions and high degree
of inequality increases the death toll from earthquakes (Anbarci, et al., 2005).
ISSUE 25(2), 2013 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK PAGE 81
compared to men.’ Women’s lack of economic and social resources relative to men also
makes them disproportionately vulnerable to the eects of disasters, including death.
And women are even more vulnerable to violence in the aftermath of disasters. But
there is nothing natural or inevitable about these deaths and violations. A comparison
of two similar historical shipping disasters with drastically dierent survival rates by
gender proves the point.
Economists, Frey, Savage, and Torsler (2010) studied the Titanic and Lusitania disasters
based on a statistical analysis of passenger and survivor lists from both ships, taking
into account gender, age, ticket class, nationality and familial relationships with other
passengers. Signicant gender dierences emerged after a close look at survival rates.
In the 1912 Titanic sinking, 1,500 people died, but women had a 50% better chance of
survival than men, whereas in the 1915 torpedo of the Lusitania by a German U-boat,
1,198 people died, and a far greater proportion were women. Frey, et al. (2010) argue
that the rapid sinking of the Lusitania led to a selsh, survival-of-the-ttest reaction,
disregarding early twentieth century social norms or the ocial protocol of protecting
women and children rst. The latter norms played out in an orderly fashion in the Ti-
tanic disaster since the boat took over four hours to descend. For the authors, time is the
major determinant of human behavior and they assume that due to biology, men under
pressure will always have greater survival rates in a disaster than women unless social
norms, however misguided, intervene.
From a social constructivist perspective, however, the ability to survive is not biological
given but socially-learned and determined, including whether one can swim or climb trees,
where one is located in a disaster (close to an evacuation route or not), and so on. What we
should take, therefore, from the comparison of the Titanic and the Lusitania is quite simply
that disasters need not disproportionately kill or harm women. That outcome is a social
and political choice. Gender equality in social and economic resources, not timing, is not
the key to women’s survival in disasters in the twenty-rst century. Moreover, planning
and preparedness can inuence appropriate behavior and eective responses equally in a
sudden, slow-moving or recurring disaster. In disasters, there are checklists for good prac-
tice, just as in hospital care there are checklists for good practice in the emergency room,
in the intensive care unit, and for preventative primary care health. Often these processes
are in place in developed countries, and as a result we see far fewer fatalities during and
after disasters than in developing countries, which have more poorly resourced govern-
ment administrative structures. But the gendered impacts of natural disasters are shaped
and sometimes exacerbated by government responses in developed states as much as in
developing states, as the comparison of New Orleans and Christchurch responses shows.
Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Christchurch earthquakes indirectly increased
both structural and physical violence against some women due to race, class and gender
inequalities pre-disaster. The respective disasters directly impacted major determinants of
violence against women and girls, including family and community stress and psychological
trauma, loss of shelter and poor access to basic needs, overcrowding and nancial insecurity,
which subsequently exacerbated rates of violence. Governments in both cities responded
dierently to vulnerable groups of women, although because of the very recent nature of
the Christchurch earthquakes, a full comparison cannot be made. In New Orleans, though,
recovery and rebuilding programmes have heightened social and political inequalities rather
than diminished them.
PAGE 82 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK ISSUE 25(2), 2013
Two developed countries’ responses to disaster: New Orleans and
Christchurch
Comparing the disasters of Hurricane Katrina in 2002 and Christchurch, New Zealand in the
September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes highlights the vulnerability of women in general
in disaster situations despite their many dierences in type of disaster, and geographical and
social context. The comparative empirical evidence basis should enable social workers to advocate
for building domestic violence responsiveness into disaster planning and preparedness. In the
weeks immediately following the Christchurch earthquake, New Zealand police reported that
domestic violence had increased by one-fth, on top of increased incidents since the earthquake
in September 2010 (Christchurch Latest Updates, 2011). Police stated that reported cases of do-
mestic abuse were only about 18% of the total (Domestic Violence Increases, 2011). Subsequent
reports by women’s refuge groups have conrmed the spike in domestic abuse. Christchurch
Women’s Refuge (CWR) noted the severity of incidents and the increase in young women en-
tering safehouses (Quake Stress Takes its Toll, 2011). In Hurricane Katrina, the women going to
shelters were also not necessarily the same women – there were new women, including from
middle-class families and immigrants, seeking help (Jenkins and Phillips, 2008, p. 62). Many
women in New Orleans returned to abusive spouses or partners due to nancial circumstances
such as losing their job (Jenkins and Phillips, 2008, p. 57). In Christchurch, police cited the closure
of the city centre as a reason why more people were drinking at home, aggravating the risk of
domestic violence (Drinking at Home Fans Rise in Domestic Abuse, 2011). There was an increase
in interest in safehouses since the June 2011 aftershock in Christchurch, which, for many women,
catalysed their decision to leave a violent intimate partner. The trend was most pronounced in
rural areas, where family violence increased 40% (Quake Stress Takes its Toll, 2011).
After their oces were destroyed in the February quake, the CWR moved to a safehouse,
the location of which had to be kept secret. Crucially, the CWR maintained their 24-hour
telephone support and refuge services throughout the February earthquake (C. Wallis,
personal communication, 22 November 2011). By contrast with New Orleans, where sta
of domestic violence shelters were part of the diaspora brought in to help, the sta of the
women’s refuges in Christchurch were similarly ‘displaced’ as the women they were helping
but continued their role throughout the post-disaster period. Consequently, the CWR was
fully operational within a week (C. Wallis, personal communication, 22 November 2011;
Drinking at Home Fans Rise in Domestic Abuse, 2011).
Recent statistics for New Orleans after the city’s reconstruction show a decrease in single
mothers and women living below the poverty line, especially black women in these catego-
ries, as outlined in Table one. However, rather than an improvement in the circumstances of
women in New Orleans, these decreases reect the fact that fewer black and poor women
have returned to the city since the disaster. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (2005)
found that many former residents of public housing (poorer women) have not returned.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing report (United Nations Human Rights
Council, 2011, p. 7-8) notes that the costs of the hurricane were ‘therefore intimately linked
to pre-existing social, economic and land use patterns, directly related to housing and urban
planning policies.’ In the aftermath of Katrina, discrimination against low-income renters
was a serious obstacle to the poorer population’s ability to return to their homes – a need
more acute because of the lack of alternatives available due to lower household income (Elliot
and Pais, 2006, p. 315). The bulk of the reconstruction funds went to rebuilding homeowner
ISSUE 25(2), 2013 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK PAGE 83
units rather than rental units, which the majority of women and poorer people relied on for
housing. The race and gender discrimination within reconstruction planning fundamentally
altered the socio-economic composition of the city. This reality is conrmed by the Institute
for Women’s Policy Research (2005) statistics on reduced women in poverty. This data on New
Orleans reconstruction has implications for Christchurch’s reconstruction and is relevant to
social work practice and advocacy in this more recent post-disaster context.
Table nine. Women in New Orleans: Race, poverty and Hurricane Katrina.
Before Hurricane Katrina After Hurricane Katrina
Women % of the population 54% 52%
Black women % of the population 47.2% 37.3%
% of women living below the federal poverty line
(NB: 13.3% national average) 23% 15.1%
% of black women living below the
federal poverty line 36.6% 23%
# of single mothers 45,183 26,819
# of black single mothers 33,675 15,118
# of single mothers in poverty 23,131 9,883
# of black single mothers in poverty 19,744 6,610
Source: Institute for Women’s Policy Research Factsheet. 2010, August. Women in New Orleans: Race,
Poverty and Hurricane Katrina. Washington: IWPR.
Disasters are not one-o events. As Thomas Homer-Dixon (2006) argues, they ‘are part of
ongoing dynamic processes of global change shaped by demographic shifts, natural resource
dependency, urbanisation, and climate change all humanly constructed. The impact of a
natural disaster depends on the overall human capabilities and resources of a society and
magnies a society’s divisions and inequalities. For social workers who work with communi-
ties who are typically most disadvantaged by social divisions and inequalities, understanding
the relationship between violence against women and girls and these inequalities is crucial if
they are to play a role in protecting as well as preventing such violence. However, as crises
disrupt normal incremental development, disasters are also opportunities for progressing
major social and political change in local communities and political-economic organisation.
Social work theory and practice can learn from previous disasters and from the ssures in
our societies that they tragically make visible, and ensure that social and gender equalities
are foregrounded not merely as markers of the wellbeing of a society but as important con-
ditions for the prevention of violence against women and girls.
As the next section illustrates, the failure to consult women or consider women’s access
to social and economic resources in particular, in disaster policymaking and planning con-
tributes to post-disaster gendered insecurities that heighten women and girls’s vulnerability
to intimate-partner violence, sexual violence and in some cases even death.
Gender-sensitive disaster planning: preventing violence against women
As argued in the introduction to this article, women are not only victims in the aftermath of
a disaster they are also agents of change (Natural Disasters from a Gendered Perspective,
PAGE 84 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK ISSUE 25(2), 2013
2009). Yet a common pattern is the exclusion of women from decision-making roles in pre-
and post-disaster reconstruction and planning. Social work professionals could use their
expertise and presence in policymaking forums to advocate the benets of encouraging the
participation of women in community post-disaster decision making. After the South Asian
tsumami, in Aceh, for example, the structures debating the ‘master plan’ for the reconstruc-
tion of the province were almost exclusively male, and women’s organisations struggled to
take part in consultation systems (Oxfam International, 2005, p. 13). Women were similarly
excluded from post-tsunami decision making in Sri Lanka, where their pre-disaster unequal
status limited their consultation and involvement in local governance and reconstruction
(CATAW, 2005; Oxfam International, 2005, p. 10). Sarah Fisher (2010, p. 911) argues that
the ‘low participation of women in planning and decision making at the local, district, and
state levels was a considerable barrier to gender-sensitive disaster response and resulted
in insucient attention to post-disaster violence’. The absence of women from pre and
post-disaster policymaking is a problem in and of itself but crucially it leads to gender-blind
compensatory, housing and rebuilding programmes that in turn, may exacerbate violence
against women and girls.
In Christchurch, the outcomes for women and gendered violence were signicantly better
than in the Asian tsunami-aected countries. Yet this was largely because of the more equal
status of women relative to men in New Zealand and the informal, pre-disaster relationships
established between police, civil defence, and women’s refuges and battered women’s shel-
ters, for instance. Surprisingly, however, there was no systematic, gender-sensitive disaster
planning in place in New Zealand, despite the country’s high ranking on all gender equality
indicators, and despite the fact that poor, single, battered women, typically with children,
were extremely vulnerable to further marginalisation and violence in the aftermath of the
Christchurch earthquake. Social work knowledge and experience with vulnerable commu-
nities including women and girls is relevant here and social workers should draw on the
evidence on the indirect impacts of disasters on domestic and sexual violence to require more
gender-sensitive disaster planning. All indications from those involved in emergency and
recovery support services in Christchurch suggest that a gender-sensitive disaster protocol
integrated within civil defence and emergency services was sorely needed in the aftermath
of the earthquake. A more detailed case study of Christchurch’s disaster response after the
2011 earthquake illustrates this point.
Christchurch earthquakes and disaster planning for vulnerable women
In poor, developing countries like Haiti, the lack of disaster planning and governance cre-
ates conditions which give rise to shocking examples of sexual and gender-based violence
(Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, et al., 2010; Amnesty International, 2011).
Research about disasters in New Zealand, a wealthy developed country, also indicates that
domestic violence increases by 100%, sometimes 200%, following a disaster event (Hough-
ton, 2010; Domestic Violence Increases, 2011). When Christchurch was struck by a series of
earthquakes and aftershocks beginning on September 4, 2010, the disaster was a crucible
of how a developed state such as New Zealand would attend to the vulnerable groups of
women in domestic violence shelters. The spike in domestic violence observed after each
earthquake meant domestic violence services were ‘frontline services’ in the wake of the
disaster (L. Herbert, personal communication, 23 November, 2011; Domestic Violence In-
creases, 2011). In 2006 the New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence indicated their intention
ISSUE 25(2), 2013 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK PAGE 85
to involve women’s refuges in regional and district disaster plans pursuant to the advocacy
and research of Dr. Rosalind Houghton (Civil Defence Adds Dealing with Family Violence
to Disaster Planning, 2006). The Christchurch earthquake experience eectively tests the
degree to which this was achieved or not.
The New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence sets broad guidelines for regional author-
ities’ (known as Civil Defence Emergency Management [CDEM] Groups) preparation of
emergency response plans. For instance, in its Mass Evacuation Guidelines, the ministry
urges the CDEM groups to identify communities that may be vulnerable in an emergency
in their planning process (Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, 2008, p.
25). Thus, from a policy perspective, battered women could be included as a ‘vulnerable
group’ that must be pro-actively accounted for in planning for contingencies. The Guide-
lines go on to state the rationale for such forward-preparation; ‘… there are likely to be
several at-risk groups in any particular area who may need special consideration in order
to ensure that, during an evacuation, they are successfully taken care of’ (Ministry of Civil
Defence and Emergency Management, 2008, p. 25). Curiously though, vulnerable women
and girls do not feature in this list of groups to consider, which includes Maori communi-
ties, ethnic communities (non-English speakers/English as a second language), remote/
isolated communities, aged and/or inrm people, people with disabilities, tourists, people
in prisons or residential institutions and schools (Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency
Management, 2008, p. 25).
When questioned about the inclusion of battered women’s shelters and refuges in
emergency plans and checklists, a representative of the Canterbury Regional Civil Defence
Emergency Management Group – which caters to the Christchurch area – stated that such
arrangements were the prerogative of individual regional groups (Janelle, CCDEM, personal
communication, 22 November, 2011). Canterbury CDEM has ‘response priorities’ which
arise pursuant to a particular disaster; in this case it was ‘saving lives’. Where ‘vulnerable
people’ would factor into their response is in relation to the second priority category, which
is ‘reducing suering’. Battered women and the facilities they rely on do not constitute
‘vulnerable people’ for the purposes of Canterbury CDEM’s response procedures and are
not included in databases listing other ‘vulnerable groups’ such as aged care and children’s
facilities (Janelle, CCDEM, personal communication, 22 November, 2011). According to the
Canterbury CDEM, if a women’s refuge had an urgent or imminent need and contacted Civil
Defence, their request would be triaged along with all other requests for service, balanced
against the competing factors of resources and urgency. However, all sta are made aware
during training of the importance of privacy, one of the reasons for which is the awareness
of domestic violence. Ostensibly, women’s refuges are dealt with by New Zealand and
Christchurch’s disaster preparedness organisations and systems on an ad hoc basis only.
These organisations are reactive to emergent issues such as domestic and sexual violence,
they are not proactive in seeking to protect against or prevent such violence in their standard
procedures for security and communication during and after a disaster.
In the Christchurch case, only those refuges renting properties from the government-run
Housing New Zealand Corporation were contacted – and not by Civil Defence but by the
Ministry of Social Development, which has primary responsibility for their properties in a
disaster – as part of standard procedure (H. Hazel, personal communication, 22 November
2011). After the February quake, the Battered Women’s Trust reported that they were invited
PAGE 86 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK ISSUE 25(2), 2013
to a meeting run by the Civil Defence Welfare Group, which asked for input on priorities
and safety concerns (L. Herbert, personal communication, 23 November, 2011). Civil Defence
was able to identify the potential needs and concerns of women’s refuges but had failed to
incorporate them into their pre-existing plans.
According to the Canterbury CDEM, one of the diculties identied in including wom-
en’s refuges in any disaster checklist or plan is the constant anonymity on which they rely.
The Canterbury CDEM stated that the fact that few people know where the safehouses
are ‘keeps them o the radar of civil defence’ (L. Herbert, personal communication, 23
November, 2011). A similar comment was made by a sta member at the Maori women’s
Otautahi Refuge (H. Hazel, personal communication, 22 November 2011). But in reality this
should not hinder the incorporation of checks on women’s refuges in post-disaster plans.
The whereabouts of all safe houses in the city were red-agged on the police system and
a security assessment was carried out on each of them (L. Herbert, personal communica-
tion, 23 November, 2011). Anonymity is about not releasing the address unnecessarily and
maintaining the privacy of individual women and children and their families. In the event
that refuge facilities were damaged, Civil Defence (or nominated police) could coordinate
transport to safe houses with refuge sta or arrange alternate safe houses.
When Rosalind Houghton asked a Civil Defence ocial in 2008 why they did not make
contact with a refuge following ooding, the ocial responded: ‘No we didn’t, because
where would you draw the line? Would you then call the SPCA and ask them if they’re
ok…[T]o be quite frank, ringing people to see if they’re alright would be done in a couple
months time. It would not happen’ (Houghton, 2010, p. 201). Putting aside the unfortunate
analogy drawn between battered women and abandoned pets, the ‘tyranny of the urgent’
is a commonly cited barrier to including gender issues such as violence against women and
girls in any pressurised policy and planning situation, not only in disasters. Canterbury
CDEM urged refuges to enhance their independence and resilience through preparedness
and procedures; a part of the overall principle ‘Get Ready, Get Thru’. Admittedly, readi-
ness is an important factor and likely to greatly inuence societal impacts and adaptive
capacity. But when this principle of readiness was put to a longstanding manager of one
of the refuges, she stated that it had not been advocated to refuges, despite being the only
alternative available to them in an emergency. Better communication around such a disaster
plan is vital (L. Herbert, personal communication, 23 November, 2011). Economic security
is a primary factor in social vulnerability (Enarson, 2000, p. 1). Women in refuges literally
do not have the economic resources to prepare; the economic impacts of a disaster intensify
already tenuous livelihoods (L. Herbert, personal communication, 23 November, 2011).
Moreover, battered women cannot readily utilise the avenues of mitigation that other peo-
ple can use, such as community shelters, because of the potential to be located by abusive
partners and the likelihood that such conditions would aggravate their existing high-levels
of psychological distress.
Women’s refuges throughout New Zealand have the unenviable task of being ‘essential
services’ without formal support from Civil Defence (whose mandate, remember, is to coor-
dinate all ‘essential services’). The refuges’ services and resources are not merely temporarily
strained, but strained for a sustained period of time following a disaster. According to the
Battered Women’s Trust, normal methods of dealing with domestic violence post-disaster
simply ‘do not stand up’ (L. Herbert, personal communication, 23 November, 2011). Govern-
ISSUE 25(2), 2013 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK PAGE 87
ment departments are enthusiastically trying to ‘build back better’ and calling on refuges to
‘think strategically’ about how the disaster is ‘a new opportunity’ when, in fact, the refuges
can hardly address the immediate needs of those families who require their services due to
a lack of resources and capacity. Such naivety reveals an embarrassing dislocation of gov-
ernment from the realities of addressing domestic violence (True, 2012, p. 177).
The Christchurch earthquakes contradict the assumption that emergency planning in
a developed state attends to ‘vulnerable people’. Social work professionals can use the
evidence of comparative studies and their own community experience to advocate for
gendered understandings of ‘vulnerability’ that include domestic and sexual violence
against women and girls. The case study shows a startling disconnect between the reali-
ties of services ‘on the ground’ and the policymakers tasked with mainstreaming gender.
This disconnect could be bridged by the social work profession who work both on the
ground and in policymaking. For women victims of violence, the outcome of the Christ-
church earthquake is a testament to the management and dedication of refuge sta in an
emergency situation. What happened in response to Christchurch’s earthquake in the
women’s refuge movement challenges the conventional notion of women as victims and
demonstrates the invaluable insight of social workers into what needs to happen post-di-
saster. In a country such as New Zealand that is aware of a pre-existing high baseline of
domestic violence, with local studies showing that domestic violence has risen during
and after past disasters and of the worldwide trend that women are overrepresented in
the impacts of disasters, why does gender-sensitive planning not exist? Perhaps more to
the point, given this example, what can social work learn from the lack of attention to the
local impacts of disasters, especially on women and girls in policy and planning? The
Christchurch example shows what is ‘conspicuously missing’ from disaster management.
Disturbingly this is in an area where empirical evidence is abundant and ominous – ‘it
seems to make perfect sense doesn’t it? It just didn’t happen’ (L. Herbert, personal com-
munication, 23 November, 2011). The role for social workers who can bring the experience
of local communities into policymaking and planning is particularly vital when it comes
to protecting and preventing violence against women and girls in disasters.
Conclusion
There are lessons to be learned – and practices to be made routine in social work and poli-
cymaking – from the informal, grassroots approaches in the Christchurch earthquake that
turned out to be eective relative to post-disaster experiences in other countries. Building
on these initiatives, gender-sensitive disaster planning must become a key government and
community priority in order to prevent the risk of heightened violence against women.
This planning would require the immediate collection of sex- and age-disaggregated data
when disasters occur, direct allocation of compensation and aid to women, inclusion of
women sta in disaster agencies such as civil defence and collaboration with groups in the
community such as women’s refuges, and social services for victims of violence. Enarson
(2000) suggests establishing gender and disaster working groups in communities to initiate
integrated planning and collect gendered data for disaster emergency response plans as her
model. These working groups faciliated by social and community workers could analyse
baseline gender relations and seek proactive ways to bolster women’s economic and political
capacities. In the event of a disaster women’s specic physical and material vulnerabilities
would then be anticipated and an operational response would be triggered.
PAGE 88 AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK ISSUE 25(2), 2013
Enarson’s model of gender-sensitive disaster planning
‘Disaster preparedness, mitigation, relief, and reconstruction initiatives must be inclusive and
equitable; ...the economic needs and resources of both women and men must be anticipated
by planners and addressed proactively; and …reconstruction must foster conditions empow-
ering women rather than undermining their capacities and increasing their vulnerability to
subsequent disasters.’ (2000: ix)
Address baseline gender relations: Analyze gender-specic vulnerabilities with respect to:
- Household structure
- Demographic trends
- Division of labor
- Occupations
- Working conditions
- Control of economic resources
- Women in need – sole, invalid, battered
Transform the capacities of women with respect to the;:
- Work patterns of women
- Workskills of women
- Resources of women
Identify women with critical knowledge about vulnerabilities. They can be integral during
a disaster, providing information on people, resources, local conditions and idiosyncracies.
Identify barriers to women’s involvement in disaster recovery policymaking (2000: 36)
Despite the human tragedy from natural disasters, the post-disaster period can create
opportunities for transforming women’s economic and social situation. Gender-sensitive
social work can facilitate those opportunities. As this article stated at the beginning, ‘there
is no such thing as a natural disaster’. At least, the impact and long-term eects of disasters
on dierent groups, including women and men, are determined by the economic, political
and social structures and institutions in any given community. Gender-based violence,
during and after disasters, can be eliminated in the future with gender-sensitive planning
and deliberation. However, too often the invisibility of violence against women both during
and after disaster exacerbates gender inequalities and marginalises women in key recovery
and disaster preparedness decision-making processes (Wilson, Phillips, and Neal, 1998).
Such marginalisation has occurred in developing and developed countries. Disasters can-
not be accurately predicted and few societies are immune from the threat of disaster. Thus,
we must overcome the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ that for expediency or other reasons often
excludes women from key community decision-making roles about disaster-planning and
preparedness. If women can substantially participate in disaster planning and policymaking
then gendered issues such as the impacts of disasters on women and girls, and increased
threats and vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence can be anticipated and, in some
cases, prevented if not eliminated altogether.
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This chapter draws on two projects that recorded the earthquake experiences of residents in different parts of Ōtautahi Christchurch and in a range of life circumstances. One of these projects contacted people interviewed in 2012 and asked them to retell their stories in 2019 and 2020. Reflections on intensified social connectedness following the Canterbury earthquake sequence are considered alongside narrators’ awareness of the diverse impacts of the quakes and disruptions to collectivity as differences between residents intensified. Residents tended to see others as “worse off’ and offered stories that emphasised their resourcefulness at a unique time in the history of their city. Theorising about communitas in the context of disasters informs analysis of these vignettes of quake experiences.
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