13 November 2012

Ensuring That Disasters Don’t Leave Low-Income Women in the Cold

By Ellen Liu and Aleyamma Mathew, Ms. Foundation for Women Program Officers

It has been little more than two weeks since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Eastern shore, and we’re again being hammered – this time by Winter Storm Athena. Harder-hit areas like Staten Island and the Far Rockaways are being cruelly subjected to what seems like a never-ending state of emergency response. 

Natural disasters have a way of exposing the underbelly of the beast.  They tell us a bigger story about our society -- which communities are prioritized and which left behind, who is most vulnerable and who is least, who is able to recover quickly and who is impacted well into the long term. 

Six years ago, Hurricane Katrina laid bare the racial and socioeconomic fault lines of New Orleans, as well as the nation.  It exposed the horrific economic injustice of the most vulnerable, many of whom were women of color and low-income women. 

Sandy, like Katrina, reminds us that natural disasters exacerbate the systemic inequality and injustice already inherent in societies.  We know that women are at greater risk of gender-based violence during and immediately after disasters, which may impact them well beyond the disaster.  A study conducted in Mississippi post-Katrina showed that gender-based violence rose from 4.6 per 100,000 per day when Hurricane Katrina hit the state, to 16.3 per 100,000 per day a year later, while many women remained displaced from their homes and were living in temporary shelters and trailers. Displacement, the challenges of permanent housing and lack of transportation to shelters exacerbate the circumstances and render women even more vulnerable.

The U.S. Census Bureau data two years following Katrina showed that labor force participation rates dropped 6.6 percent for females, as compared to 3.8 percent for males.  A primary reason is that women are often under-employed in the lowest-wage jobs, most vulnerable to crisis situations where they are the first to be laid off and the last to be re-hired.  Women are more likely the managers of their households, with primary caretaking responsibility for children and the elderly. Their situations are worsened by the lack of work supports such as family medical leave, paid sick days and child care, which become even more critical during a crisis.

Many child care centers were destroyed during Katrina, but since government agencies did not recognize child care as an essential service in post-disaster relief and re-building of the economy, low-income families were disproportionately impacted in their ability to regain financial footing. Those without alternative child care arrangements were simply unable to return to their jobs.

When the Ms. Foundation for Women responded to Hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic impact on the South, we knew we had to meet the immediate needs of women, but also ensure that women’s leadership and priorities remained central to the recovery and rebuilding, both in the short and long-term.  And so as we rebuild from Sandy and recover from Athena, officials must keep several key principles in mind:
Women must be placed at the center of response and recovery. 
Women are often the managers of their own households and are at the center of community life. In times of crisis, women must be viewed as community assets, and their input must be considered throughout the recovery process. 

Key work supports are essential.
Women’s participation in the economy must be recognized, and key work supports, including child care, must be provided in this road to recovery and self-sufficiency.  In particular, low-income families must be adequately supported to ensure that they regain their financial footing. Supports for low-wage workers include paid sick leave and subsidized child care.

Women need safety after the storm.
We must be vigilant in supporting families and ensuring that women and children are safe from harm at all times. Women must be able to access services that ensure personal safety. Cell phones are a critical lifeline for women in danger.

The aftermath of a natural disaster is when the reckoning begins.  As crisis mode gives way to clean up, recovery and re-development, we must be most attentive in ensuring that those communities and individuals who are most vulnerable are not forgotten or rendered invisible. 

Indeed, our experience at the Ms. Foundation tells us that recovery and re-building is most successful when the most marginalized women are at the center of our efforts.  It is the collective investment in the power of women, families and communities that burns brightest through the storm and its aftermath. 

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