Addressing discrimination in disasters

Published: 13 December 2007 0:00 CET

Some 142 million people worldwide were affected by disasters in 2006. A significant number of these suffered disproportionately simply because they were discriminated against – before, during and after the event – by their own families and communities, by their governments and even by the very aid agencies whose job it is to provide relief.

Ethnic or social origin, language, religion, gender, age, physical or mental disability, and sexual orientation are just some of the deep-rooted causes of discrimination that can have such a devastating impact on the lives of those targeted by it.

Discrimination in everyday life rarely endangers lives, but in an emergency situation it can be life-threatening. It affects not only people’s ability to survive the crisis, but also their capacity to recover and to regain their livelihoods. The World Disasters Report 2007 explains what this means in practice for minorities, the elderly, persons with disabilities and women.

Recent disasters have, sadly, provided countless examples of how discrimination persists and is often heightened during an emergency: the Indian Ocean tsunami, the South Asia earthquake, Hurricane Katrina and Darfur to name but a few.

After the tsunami, some Dalits – who are treated as ‘untouchables’ in the Hindu caste system – were forbidden by other castes from drinking water from the same water tanks because sharing with Dalits would, in their view, pollute it. Other Dalits who survived the tsunami recount how they were employed by the local authority to clean drains and toilets. They were also told to pick up the dead bodies on the shore, but were not provided with protective gloves or masks.

In order to address the very real issue of discrimination against the Dalits, the Tamil Nadu state government took the unusual step of providing segregated facilities and camps for Dalit tsunami survivors. This was a conscious and practical decision to ensure the Dalits were not abused by dominant groups. However, it appears that this did not entirely solve the problem of discrimination as there were reports that some Dalits in a separate camp found they received less aid than other tsunami survivors.

Equally, governments and aid agencies rarely address the specific needs of older people in disasters, whether these needs be nutritional, social, medical, or related to mobility. This is hardly surprising when you consider that funding to support older people accounts for just one per cent or less of individual country responses. This is significantly lower than the seven per cent recommended by the Sphere Project, which was set up to promote minimum standards for aid agencies in disaster response. This situation is compounded by the fact that there are no UN agencies and very few international NGOs dedicated to the needs of older people.

Women may be considered the most vulnerable and discriminated group in emergencies. Disaster after disaster has shown that displacement significantly increases the risk of physical abuse to women. The experience of many women following Hurricane Katrina bears witness to this trend.

In 2006, a survey carried out in the wake of the disaster found high rates of gender-based violence compared with baseline rates provided by the US Department of Justice. Some 5.9 rapes were documented per day per 100,000 women following displacement. This equates to 527 rapes among the 32,841 women displaced into trailer parks. This rape rate is 53.6 times higher than the highest baseline state rate.

These examples, taken from this year’s World Disasters Report, show the different ways in which discrimination can manifest itself in times of disaster. The report examines in detail how and why different groups are marginalized during humanitarian emergencies. In what ways do governments and aid organizations reinforce discrimination? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?

The first steps in addressing discrimination in disasters should be taken before an emergency even happens. Risk reduction and preparedness are just as important a part of the process as any aspect of a disaster. Preventing discrimination and changing peoples’ attitudes must become the first priority. And in order to make vulnerability more visible, advocacy and community development are required. Greater efforts must also be made to map discrimination in emergencies, while guidelines need to be shared throughout the whole humanitarian system.

Dialogue is fundamental to good programme design, monitoring and evaluation, and systematic efforts to listen to all groups affected by disaster can help pre-empt and remedy discrimination. Understanding the local context and any existing prejudices is imperative. Not doing so risks further marginalizing already disadvantaged members of the community.

In a disaster, recovery teams are sometimes under pressure to make rapid decisions on the basis of information which is less than adequate. A degree of discrimination may, inevitably, result in each phase of the recovery operation. Aid workers need to be aware that inclusion requires them to be constantly vigilant throughout the process.

Perhaps, most importantly, understanding and respecting the complex cultural context in which aid agencies are working, and using the strategies and mechanisms available to detect, minimize and address discrimination, will result in a great improvement in the effectiveness and equity of humanitarian assistance.

Aid agencies may find it difficult to strike a fair balance between working with governments and tackling the discrimination that may be inherent in government policy. Getting it wrong may jeopardize the very relief operation that they are there to carry out. This is a delicate position in that agencies may depend on government permission to carry out their work.

Whatever the underlying reasons for discrimination, be they intentional or unintentional, the humanitarian world must ensure the active and unhindered participation of marginalized people in disaster management, both in planning response and in implementation.