By Edinah Masiyiwa
HARARE, Jun 13 2019 (IPS) - In late March Cyclone Idai carved a path of devastation across Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi. It was the deadliest cyclone to hit the region in more than a century, others have even referred to it as “Africa’s Hurricane Katrina.” More than 1,000 people were killed. Many more saw their homes, food crops, and even entire villages washed away.
My country, Zimbabwe, has been receiving aid from all over the world. Our citizens also have taken it upon themselves to donate toward the needs of those who survived. We may be feeling like things are getting better. But in fact, for many women and girls, they are getting worse.
We are experiencing an aspect of natural disasters that rarely receives the attention it deserves: the fact simply being female puts one at a far greater risk of suffering harm.
A recent report by the UN Resident Coordinator in Zimbabwe observed that at least 15,000 women and girls in the areas affected by Idai are at risk of gender-based violence linked to disruptions caused by the storm.
For example, there was a report of a 14-year-old girl who suffered a sexual assault in Chimanimani, a community in eastern Zimbabwe hit hard by the cyclone. This one case might be just the tip of the iceberg as there are women walking long distances to get to places where food and other aid is being distributed and being forced to sleep in long queues.
There also are concerns of women and girls being asked to provide sex in exchange for access to aid. Meanwhile, a UN Flash appeal report has noted the lack of privacy and lighting in camps for displaced persons, which can increase the risk of violence and transactional sex for female storm victims.
This situation is, unfortunately, not unique to Cyclone Idai.
UN Women has highlighted that there is a rise in violence, including sexual violence, against women and girls in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Just standing in a queue for food aid and other support leave women more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and, consequently, HIV infections.
Also, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in crisis situations one in five women of childbearing age are likely to be pregnant. There is an urgent need to ensure access to reproductive health services. Lack of services such as prenatal care and assisted deliveries, puts these women at an increased risk of life-threatening complications. Suspensions in services that provide prevention and treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections also have a greater impact on women.
Right after the Idai hit, the immediate focus of aid efforts was understandably on providing food and shelter. It is now time to broaden that focus to include interventions that protect women and girls from violence, sexual exploitation, and the loss of critically needed health services.
For example, all actors on the ground responding to the cyclone must ensure they integrate training programs that include efforts to mitigate the risk of gender-based violence. There should be clear procedures for reporting any cases of violence and measures to protect victims who step forward from suffering retaliation.
Zimbabwe’s Civil Protection Unit also should devote resources to helping women retain access to reproductive health services. Pregnant women should be screened for complications and those at high risk—such as women who need to deliver via caesarian section—should be transferred to hospitals where emergency care is available from skilled health workers.
Women will need access to contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancies, which ultimately lead to unsafe abortions. Also, at a minimum, there should be a system in place for the timely delivery of aid so that women are not forced to sleep in a long queue just to receive assistance. And any temporary shelter should include security guards to help protect women and girls from attacks.
A natural disaster can impose terrible hardships and cyclones like Idai could become more common as climate change increases the risk of weather extremes. But while we cannot prevent these events from occurring, we can ensure that, for women and girls, storms like Idai do not continue to rage in the form of sexual violence and other neglect that greatly compounds their trauma.
Edinah Masiyiwa is a women’s rights activist. She is the Executive Director of Women’s Action Group and an 2019 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.