Natural Disasters and Increased Sexual Violence

The below briefing is a noteworthy summary of the problem of violence against women after a widespread disaster.  It is posted here for its merits, but particularly as an example of modern education on this subject.

Like so many of its ilk, the below “fact sheet” includes a quest for “political correctness” which supersedes honest analysis.  It blocks the telling of the whole story, and herein obstructs the truth.  As a result, we are not given a complete and accurate appraisal of the problem, and this adversely effects preparedness planning.

As these “fact sheets” accurately report, sexual violence does often increase exponentially after a major disaster.  True.  But the reason is baser than the conclusions presented in most of these contemporary, academic theses.

The underlying reason for the increase in sexual violence certainly includes those things mentioned in the following summary, but the fundamental cause is something else.  It is our failure to instill a self-controlling sense of morality, and respect for others, in our cultural mores.

A natural disaster or catastrophic event creates turmoil, and upsets social structures which normally corral behavior.  This makes it possible for individuals to lose their identity in the crowd or ensuing chaos.  John Quincy Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and 2nd president of the United States, said it well.  He commented, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.”

As we have forced God and the teaching of morality out of our schools and public square, fail to praise and reward “character” in the marketplace, as we produce movies and video games which extol violence, self-centeredness as necessary, and as we promote Darwinian “survival of the fittest” in place of virtue, we have earned a populous with only a thin veneer of civilization.

In our modern society, even law-abiding individuals and neighbors (who we perceive to be respectable), can quickly revert to an animal-like state during an emergency situation.  If you intend to prepare for a disaster or emergency situation, you need to prepare for violence, too.  Behavior which individuals might ordinarily condemn as reprehensible, may become acceptable to them once the foundations of their world have been shaken.  Regrettably, mankind is not basically good.  In the aftermath of a disaster this will become painfully evident.

If you are serious about disaster preparedness, expect to see an increase in selfless acts of heroism and sacrifice; but plan for the brutality and violence of a war zone.

— Sig


New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault

Factsheets: Katrina, Natural Disasters and Sexual Violence

Why does rape occur in the aftermath of natural disasters and other humanitarian crises?

Rape and violence against women in the aftermath of humanitarian disasters is no new problem. Internationally, rape in refugee situations has become quite common. According to the Human Rights Watch document “Sexual Violence Against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response”, there are several causes or circumstances which allow sexual attacks to take place:

1. Society

a. The collapse of traditional societal support mechanisms (social sanctions, norms for proper behavior, etc.) when refugees are forced to flee or to live in camp surroundings. In particular, the communal support systems for the protection of vulnerable individuals may no longer be present.

b. Male attitudes of disrespect towards women may be instrumental in causing incidents of sexual violence. For example, within a camp, men may look upon unaccompanied women and girls as common sexual property.

c. Psychological strain on refugee men in not being able to assume normal cultural, social and economic roles, may cause aggressive behavior towards women. Many other aspects of refugee life can aggravate this, including idleness, anger at loss of control and power, uncertainty about the future, and frustration with living conditions.

d. Alcohol and drug abuse can result in violent behavior within families and communities. Such abuse is often linked to boredom. depression and stress.

2. Vulnerability

a. Females who are on their own for whatever reason, whether they are single, widowed, abandoned, unaccompanied minors, lone heads of households, or women who have been separated from male family members by the chaos of the situation, are all particularly at risk of sexual violence.

3. Camp design and location

a. The design and social structure in many camps may contribute to the likelihood of protection problems. Camps are often overcrowded. Unrelated families may need to share communal living and sleeping space. In effect, such refugees are living among strangers.

b. The lack of police protection and general lawlessness in some camps is also a factor.

In the aftermath of Katrina, we are seeing a similar refugee situation with hundreds of internally displaced persons. Rape and violence has become commonplace and may be exacerbated by the circumstances mentioned above.

There is, however, much research that has been done around prevention of sexual violence within refugee situations, like those presented after Hurricane Katrina. Including gender analyses in disaster planning is crucial. Many lessons can be learned from the international work that has been done on this topic. Below is a brief bibliography of such sources.

The rapes and sexual violence that is occurring in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is unacceptable and could have been prevented. As a community, we should learn from this and ensure that any future natural or man-made disasters do not leave women and children vulnerable to sexual violence.


Blaikie, Piers, et al. (eds.). 1994. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters. London: Routledge.

Byrne, Bridget and Sally Baden. 1995. Gender, Emergencies and Humanitarian Assistance. Bridge Briefing on Development and Gender. Oxford: European Commission.
Department of Humanitarian Affairs News. 1997. Focus: Women in Emergencies (22). Geneva: UNDHA.
Eade, Diane and Suzanne Williams (eds). 1995. The Oxfam Handbook of Development and Relief, Vols 1-3. Oxford: Oxfam.
Enarson, Elaine. 1999. Violence against women in disasters: a study of domestic violence programs in the United States and Canada. Violence Against Women 5(7): 742-768.
Enarson, Elaine. l998.“Through Women’s Eyes: A Gendered Research Agenda for Disaster Social Science.” Disasters 22(2): 157-173.

Enarson, Elaine and Betty Hearn Morrow (eds.). 1998. The Gendered Terrain of Disaster:Through Women’s Eyes. Westport, CT: Greenwood/Praeger.
Elaine Enarson and Betty Hearn Morrow (eds.) 1997. “A Gendered Perspective: The Voices of Women.” Pp. 116-140 in Hurricane Andrew: Race, Gender and the Sociology of Disaster, edited by Walter Gillis Peacock, Betty Hearn Morrow, and Hugh Gladwin. London: Routledge.

Enarson, Elaine and Maureen Fordham. 1999. “Lines that divide, ties that bind: race, class, and gender in women’s flood recovery in the US and UK.” Paper presented to the European Sociological Association meetings, Amsterdam.

Fothergill, Alice. 1996. “Gender, Risk, and Disaster.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 14 (1): 33-56.

Fothergill, Alice. 1999. “Women’s roles in a disaster.” Applied Behavioral Science Review 7(2): 125-143.
Fordham, Maureen. 1998. “Making Women Visible in Disasters: Problematising the Private Domain.” Disasters 22 (2): 126-143.

Fordham, Maureen.1999. “The intersection of gender and social class in disaster: balancing resilience and vulnerability.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 17 (1): 15-37.

Hynes, M. and Cardozo, B.L. Sexual violence against refugee womenJournal of Women’s Health & Gender-Based Medicine 9(8):819–823 (2000).

Ikeda, Keiko. 1995. “Gender Differences in Human Loss and Vulnerability in Natural Disasters: A Case Study from Bangladesh.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies 2 (2): 171-193.

International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. 1995. “Women and Children: Key to Prevention.” STOP Disasters (24).

Khnondker, Habibul. 1996. “Women and Floods in Bangladesh.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 14 (3): 281-292.

Krishnaraj, Maithreye. 1997. “Gender Issues in Disaster Management: The Latur Earthquake.” Gender, Technology and Development 1 (3): 395-411.

Gibbs, Susan. 1990. Women’s Role in the Red Cross/Red Crescent. HDI Studies on Development #1. Geneva: Henry Dunant Institute.

League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. 1991. Working With Women in Emergency Relief and Rehabilitation Programmes. Field Studies Paper #2. Geneva, Switzerland.
Lentin, Ronit (ed.). 1997. Gender and Catastrophe. Zed: London.

Mabuwa, R. [1] Seeking Protection: Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Tanzania’s Refugee Camps. New York: Human Rights Watch (October 2000). Available at: [2]

Morris, Patricia. 1998. Weaving Gender in Disaster and Refugee Assistance. New York: Commission on the Advancement of Women.

Morrow, Betty Hearn and Elaine Enarson. 1996. “Hurricane Andrew Through Women’s Eyes: Issues and Recommendations.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 14 (1): 5-22.

Morrow, Betty Hearn and Brenda Phillips (eds). 1999. Special Issue on Women and Disasters. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 17 (1).

Nduna, S. and Rude, D. [3] A Safe Space Created By and For Women: Sexual and Gender-based Violence Program, Phase II Report. New York: International Rescue Committee (1998). Available at: [4]

Palmer, C. [5] Refugee Women and Domestic Violence: Country Studies, Kosovo. Edition 3. London: Refugee Women’s Resource Project, Asylum Aid (September 2002). Available at: [6] reports/DV individual reports/RWDV Kosovo Sep 02.doc.

Rivers, Joan. 1982. “Women and Children Last: An Essay on Sex Discrimination in Disasters.” Disasters 6 (4): 256-67.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Prevention and Response to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Refugee Situations. Proceedings of the Inter-Agency Lessons Learned Conference, Geneva (March 27–29, 2001). Available at: [7]
UNHCR[8] Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women. Geneva: UNHCR (1991). Available at: [9]

Vann, B. [10] Gender-Based Violence: Emerging Issues in Programs Serving Displaced Populations. Arlington, Virgina: JSI Research and Training Institute (September 2002). Available at:

Walker, Bridget (ed.). l994. Women and Emergencies. Oxford: Oxfam

Wiest, Raymond, Jane Mocellin, and D. Thandiwe Motsisi. 1994. The Needs of Women in Disasters and Emergencies. Report prepared for the Disaster Management Training Programme of the United Nations Development Programme and the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator. Winnipeg, Manitoba: The University of Manitoba Disaster Research Institute.


[11] Download this factsheet. (26.39K Bytes)


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