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What can I do to prevent and respond to sexual violence in the wake of a disaster?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Shortly after the earthquake and impending nuclear crisis in Japan, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center received a request for assistance from a Coordinator in Japan working with the Polaris Project. Historically, rates of sexual violence and other forms of violence against women increase in the aftermath of a disaster or crisis (WHO, 2002). The advocate in this case hoped to secure as many resources as she could to aid women and children directly impacted by this disaster. With thousands of people facing displacement after their homes were destroyed, the need is great, and resources are at a premium. After the recent storms that raged from the southern United States through the midwest and into the north, we are all too familiar with the devastation that natural disasters can cause. The Relief Fund for Sexual Assault Victims offers some refuge within the United States and now there is a fund to support the needs of women and children in Japan as well: The Women’s Fund for Safety. Disasters have a major impact on some of the most traditionally vulnerable populations, including women and children, people in later life, people living with disabilities, and people living in poverty (Klein, 2008). Learning what you can do to prevent sexual violence and prepare for disaster situations can have a positive impact on outcomes for people in disaster areas.

According to the World Health Organization, a disaster is “any occurrence that causes damage, ecological disruption, loss of human life or deterioration of health and health services on a scale sufficient to warrant an extraordinary response from outside the affected community area” (Gender and Health in Disasters, 2002).

PREVENTING SEXUAL VIOLENCE: Moving from preparedness to response

Preventing sexual violence means establishing large scale cultural shifts to change the attitudes and behaviors that condone violence (Davis, Parks, & Cohen, 2006). There are many steps that advocates and organizations can take to prepare for disasters and lessen the risks for sexual violence. Establishing a disaster plan, a point person for contact, and ties with other agencies and organizations helps to create a secure environment that can pull together to respond to any emergency. Engaging your communities in disaster preparedness planning before a crisis helps to prevent violence, but even communities who face disasters without a plan in place can take action. After a disaster strikes, prepared organizations have the ability to take actions that reduce the potential for sexual harm. Steps like creating designated zoning within emergency shelters, or keepings lists of evacuees and performing head counts may keep shelters safer and more secure and may prevent opportunities for perpetrating sexual violence. Advocates can also volunteer to help support organizations that provide disaster relief services, like The American Red Cross or FEMA. Knowledge and experience in crisis response and establishing safety can lead to prevention of violence and healing in many situations.

During times of disaster, the stress, fear and sense of helplessness associated with emergency tend to increase risk factors for perpetration of violence against women.” (Klein, 2008)

LESSONS LEARNED

The NSVRC developed a planning guide for prevention and response to Sexual Violence in Disasters, which includes information and action steps an organization can take in preparing for an emergency. While this guide was useful for the Japanese advocate seeking resources, it also posed a great lesson on language access. So far, this resource is only available in English (TXT) and Spanish (TXT), but the crises in Japan brought the need for expanded accessibility to the forefront. Lessons learned in times of necessity drive needed change for improved social justice. In this case, the advocate was able to post some information in English on a blog and some pertinent information was translated into Japanese and sent to the front lines for staff working in shelters and for victims of the disaster. Our partners at CALCASA provided some materials in Japanese to help meet the needs at the disaster site. Examples like this one validate the movement-wide effort to make services and resources universally accessible.

TAKING ACTION

In responding to the request of this Japanese advocate, the NSVRC connected her with individuals who were able to establish The Women’s Fund for Safety. The need for medical personnel, and more specifically for SANEs (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners), made the connection to International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) critical. At this time, NSVRC is willing to support the travel of any SANE that is willing to go to Japan to help in this effort. Take direct action by making a donation, either to the Japanese Women’s Fund for Safety or to the National Relief Fund to respond to disasters in the United States. Begin discussions in your organizations and communities about disaster planning and preparedness. Stay tuned for the NSVRC’s launch of a new eLearning tool to assist communities in this effort in Fall 2011. Translate resources to make them universally accessible. Make contingency plans with your family and friends. Finally, create a culture that doesn’t condone sexual violence.

What is your organization doing to plan and prepare for disaster situations? How can communities get involved?