Predictable, preventable: Overcoming the challenges of violence during and after disasters.
A recent Canadian Red Cross (CRC) and IFRC report outlines best practices to address violence in disasters, and calls on humanitarian actors to mainstream a public health approach to violence prevention in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. It demonstrates that the pattern of increased violence following disasters impacts low, middle, and high income countries alike.
Disasters amplify social vulnerabilities and harm coping mechanisms, increasing violence when communities most need support. Violence in disasters causes death, injury, or trauma, but also undermines hope, trust and self-worth in individuals and communities. Its effects compound disasters’ physical, economic and health impacts, and persist long after the rubble has been cleared. Yet violence receives little attention.
In recent years, several Canadian provinces have experienced continuous complex, large scale disasters, including simultaneous wildfires and massive flooding. Frustrations over a sense of decreasing security and safety have turned into violence in a variety of ways. “In some cases, it is an increase in interpersonal violence where evacuation shelters are located. In some cases the anger and frustration is directed at local authorities or Red Cross workers themselves,” said Cindy Fuchs, the Provincial Director for the CRC in Saskatchewan.
Programs to address disasters’ emotional impacts can reduce tensions and introduce healthy coping mechanisms. However, the CRC has found that these programs must appear in communities before violence materializes.
Since 1998, the Honduran Red Cross has been implementing lessons learned after Hurricane Mitch, a storm that killed more than 10,000 people and made over two million people homeless across Central America. “Given the transitory nature of how people lived, and the difficult urban environment, we saw a number of social problems such as family violence and gang violence, which caused insecurity, and were exacerbated by the crowded conditions,” said Maria Elisa Alvarado, Director General of the Honduran Red Cross.
“We made dealing with this situation a priority, and took a much more active role in community organizing because we recognized that success in any other area was dependent on success in this,” said Alvarado. The Red Cross focused on involving communities in the management of shelters and their programs.
Starting with mapping the different needs of men, women, youth, children, and the elderly, this focus led to an understanding of the challenges people faced, including gender discrimination, unemployment, alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, and poor education. As a result, shelter residents were able to address, as a community, the problems they faced. With greater autonomy and participation, communities became more resilient.
As evidence mounts for a coordinated and comprehensive approach to violence prevention in disasters, it is critical that the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies prioritize violence prevention as a cornerstone of reconstruction, recovery, and development efforts.