Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse in the aftermath of disasters.
The recent news that a young woman, seeking shelter from the communal violence that rendered thousands homeless in Muzaffarnagar, UP, was raped by two men reminds us that following a disaster there are often more personal disasters — many that go unreported. Everyone is affected by a natural disaster or by strife leading to large-scale displacement — men, women and children. But we often forget the special plight of young girls in their adolescence in these circumstances.
In fact, as a recent and most interesting report by Plan International on the impact of disasters on adolescent girls (www.issuu.com) points out, this group is often invisible to those planning relief. Girls in this age group are not children but neither are they women. Yet they are often clubbed together with women with no consciousness about their specific needs.
In societies where women are powerless even in normal times, their lack of power is exacerbated when they are displaced and compelled to spend months, sometimes years, in relief camps.
For girls, the problems are compounded many times over. While some of their needs might be the same as those of their mothers — for instance, access to sanitation and safety around the relief camps — their vulnerability is greater.
They face a higher degree of sexual harassment and violence even as they go about their routine tasks of getting the food dole, collecting water, in some instances firewood, or bathing and going to the toilet.
Fear of this potential violence on girls forces many families to marry them off while they are still underage. The desperation for money also sometimes compels families to look the other way as these young girls are trapped into prostitution. But little is known of all this. It is often unspoken. And it is certainly not part of the accounting system of the impact of disasters on communities.
There is adequate data now to show that women displaced by disasters often experience a disproportionate amount of physical violence. Almost nine out of 10 women affected by the 2004 tsunami in India, for instance, reported having experienced physical violence within two years of the disaster. Many women also suffer much greater violence at home because of the impact of loss of work on the men, who in turn take out their frustration on their wives.
Why is any of this relevant? For several reasons. One, when a disaster occurs, or there is a communal clash as in Muzaffarnagar leading to displacement, the government, media and civil society focus on the event and the aftermath.
The tropical cyclone that hit Odisha and Andhra Pradesh recently, for instance, became the focus of much discussion on effective intervention by the government, especially of Odisha, in moving lakhs of people to safe places. This clearly saved many lives.
But now that the immediate emergency has receded, so has the spotlight. What is happening to the people who are still displaced, in relief camps, with their means of livelihood destroyed as also their homes?
How are the women and young girls managing in the relief camps?
If, as Plan International suggests, the instances of trafficking of young adolescent girls increases after a disaster, is anyone keeping an eye on what is happening to the disaster-affected in these two States?
Then again, the impact of communal conflict is sometimes worse because the displaced have lost trust in the authorities, are imbued with fear and dare not return to their homes.
The reported rape cases in Muzaffarnagar suggest that the venom and anger persist, and women become the collateral damage in this clash. Is anyone assessing these specific and special needs, especially of adolescent girls, for safety and security under these circumstances?
In the run-up to the 2014 elections, the possibility of more communal clashes of the kind we have already seen seems virtually unavoidable. Also, the frequency of natural disasters — thanks to global warming and environmental degradation — is inevitable.
According to the report quoted above, the frequency of natural disasters has increased from 90 per year in the 1970s to 450 per year in the last decade. Clearly, whether it is displacement due to conflict or due to a natural disaster, people, mostly poor people, are going to have to be prepared to spend long years in temporary shelters hoping and waiting for rehabilitation.
If the needs of the most vulnerable, which includes adolescent girls but also the elderly and the disabled, are addressed, all those affected by the disaster will benefit.