Natural Disasters

A tsunami for Tonga… and for women | by Lina AbiRafeh | Jan, 2022

Lina AbiRafeh

Tonga. Saturday January 16, 2022. An underwater volcano erupted, probably the biggest on record in more than 30 years. The result was tsunamis across the Pacific — a massive natural disaster. The damage has already been significant. At this stage, deaths and injuries remain unclear but the Red Cross estimates up to 80,000 people have been affected.

It reminds me — probably all of us — of another tsunami.

December 26, 2004. An earthquake in the Indian Ocean created a tsunami the likes of which the world had never seen. An estimated 230,000 people died across 14 countries, most of which were in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

I went to Sri Lanka in February of 2005 to research the gendered impact of the wave.

At that point I had already heard some horrific numbers: 40,000 dead, 30,000 injured, 400,000 displaced. And people continued to die from tsunami-related injuries and disease for months after the wave.

We’d like to imagine that everyone suffers equally from such disasters. Waves don’t discriminate, do they?

Yes, they do.

I know this because I used to work in humanitarian emergencies — conflicts and natural disasters.

Meanwhile in Tonga, the full extent of damage is yet to be understood, due in large part to the eruption breaking the underwater communications cable, leaving most parts of the island cut off from the world. The communication blackout makes it difficult to assess the scale of damage and what type of response is needed.

Images show widespread devastation and entire communities covered in a layer of thick ash, causing significant threat to food and water sources. People are at risk of exposure to unsafe air, and water supplies have been affected.

A disaster of this scale will no doubt produce worldwide interest and, crucially, funding.

Countries have already rallied to commit relief supplies, technical support, and — in some cases — their defense forces. Humanitarian relief will also come in the form of water, sanitation, hygiene kits, tarpaulins, and tents. The challenge is that the response may have to be coordinated remotely in case of further eruptions.

The pandemic adds another layer of complexity. Aid supplies and relief efforts may be hindered due to the risk of spreading Covid. Tonga recorded its first case only in October and officials are concerned that assistance could lead to an outbreak, citing the risk of “another wave — a tsunami of Covid-19.”

And yet, another likely tsunami lurks: a wave of violence against women and girls. Covid-19 has already meant a spike in rates — likely to increase yet again because violence against women dramatically increases in the aftermath of disaster.

A strategy will emerge, hopefully one that centers local women’s groups — groups usually sidelined by international relief efforts. Women’s groups will ensure that urgent service delivery is combined with preventative long-term measures — enabling Tonga to move from relief to recovery through a gendered lens.

In Sri Lanka, the wave was surprisingly gendered. More women were swept up by the wave and could not escape. Women were less likely to know how to swim. Their saris caused further complications. Women could not cling to trees. They were more easily tangled in debris and sucked in. And, their first efforts were to save their children — not themselves. Thus, the majority of the casualties were women and children.

Women who survived then struggled to rebuild their lives — dedicating time to their communities. In Sri Lanka — and everywhere — women’s burdens increased as they are traditionally the caretakers of the sick and injured. We’ve seen this throughout the Covid pandemic, too.

I remember speaking to Seela, a woman who ran a community-based organization. She explained that she had assumed that women would want houses and shelter first.

No, they said, we want our work first. Our businesses. Otherwise we would be beggars, we refuse to be beggars,” they told Seela.

“The women did not want to depend on other people.”

At the same time, sexual violence cases were rampant in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. Even the fear of sexual violence was crippling, limiting the mobility of women and girls, in particular as they searched for safety, supplies, and survival.

In Tonga, violence against women — specifically domestic violence — is widespread. 75% of women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to studies. This likely underestimates reality as most women fear reprisals if they report the abuse.

Tonga has no domestic violence, sexual harassment, human trafficking, sex tourism or family legislation in place and has no minimum age of sexual consent, so statutory rape is not a crime. In terms of equality, Tonga has a long way to go.

And a natural disaster is only going to make a precarious situation that much worse.

In Sri Lanka, women’s groups immediately issued an appeal for an inclusive framework for disaster response, to prevent cases and protect women, ensuring that they are not subjected to further violence and abuse. Despite this, reports of rape — including gang rape — were rampant. In addition, cases of abuse of women and girls were frequent in supposed rescue operations, support structures, and temporary shelters.

Even worse, when such violence is perpetrated by those who come claiming to help.

I remember reading Femina Sri Lanka, a women’s magazine, while I was there in early 2005. It quoted an entrepreneur named Janet who said this:

“At a time when disaster has struck our nation, women and children are being assaulted and abused by the very people who are going to them under the pretext of help. It shocks me when I hear of children being kidnapped from relief camps and women being raped by relief workers. This is more terrible and traumatic than the natural disaster itself.”

Women’s groups pushed back, establishing CATAW, the Coalition for Assisting Tsunami Affected Women. CATAW gathered the energies of over 60 women’s groups to jointly advocate for the protection and empowerment of women in rehabilitation projects.

“Years of working with conflict and internal displacement have taught us that where law and order breaks down, where safety networks provided by family and community have disappeared, women become most vulnerable to a range of violations of their rights, including sexual and physical violence.”

Tonga will be no different. We know this from other emergencies. As much as I wish it were not so.

Tonga’s Women and Children Crisis Center will likely mobilize soon — and will probably be saying the same things as CATAW. The Center reaches women survivors of violence, and then employs them to counsel and support other women. Tonga will need this in the days — and months — ahead.

I reached out to my friend and former colleague April Pham, the Senior Gender Advisor for OCHA, the UN agency responsible for coordinating humanitarian assistance.

“Here’s what we know from decades of experience: natural disasters are gendered. We’ve seen this everywhere. And now in Tonga we need to be ready to mobilize. That means including women in all parts of the disaster response, in violence prevention and risk reduction activities, and promoting women’s leadership so they are making decisions — the very decisions that affect them.”

April continued: “What’s more, we know that food insecurity and loss of livelihoods puts women and girls at enormous risk of exploitation and abuse. Let’s be prepared, and make sure the women of Tonga are involved — and leading.”

Ultimately, the response in Tonga needs to center women, to ensure that cases of sexual violence are prevented, that support structures and services are available, and that mechanisms are in place to receive complaints and take action. Women’s voices must be heard at all levels of decision-making regarding relief and rehabilitation efforts.

From my time in the field, what I learned, and what I saw, is this: when things get ugly, we want to count on systems and services, law and order, support and safety nets, to hold us together. But really, in the very times we’re supposed to step up, stand up, stick together — we don’t. At those times, sexual violence actually increases. So when we think the emergency is over, for women the emergency is actually just beginning.

This isn’t just Tonga. Or Sri Lanka.

It’s not just “other women” or “over there”. In the US after Hurricane Katrina, sexual violence increased so much that emergency services had to turn women away because they could not help them all. And domestic violence increased for years after the tragedy. For years.

This issue is literally on the global agenda right now. The theme of the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women in March is focused on “gender equality and empowerment of women and girls in the context of climate change and disaster risk reduction.”

Our response in Tonga should be a case study in how to do it right.


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