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By on December 17, 2021

Sexual Violence in Disasters: A new resource from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center

This blog was authored by ValorUS intern, Leah Holtz.


“Disasters expose and exacerbate pervasive inequities. Systemic racism, colonialism, nativism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism, cissexism, and other oppressions leave marginalized communities exposed to higher rates of morbidity, mortality, unemployment, and housing insecurity, and greater barriers to evacuation, essential services, and recovery at every stage of disaster planning and response (Cliffton et al., 2020; FEMA, 2020).”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the need for inclusive, well-funded, and community driven disaster preparedness. As organizations, government entities, and businesses grapple with creating plans for both disaster prevention and response, it is important to keep in mind how both human-caused and natural disasters exacerbate inequities, causing greater harm to already marginalized communities. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in partnership with an advisory group made up of local, state and national groups dedicated to racial justice and ending oppression, has released the guide, Sexual Violence in Disasters, an updated resource that builds on the work of one of their most requested guides, Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence in Disasters: A Planning Guide for Prevention and Response (Klein, 2008). 

Sexual Violence in Disasters is a comprehensive guide, covering how risk factors for sexual violence victimization and perpetration are heightened during and while recovering from a disaster. 

Disasters also make it difficult for survivors to heal and access services and to hold people who commit sexual violence accountable. Prevention efforts are disrupted as organizations  pivot to meeting basic needs and in some situations, close or limit activities.  Efforts that focus on increasing access to economic opportunities and education, as well as resources such as housing and mental health care, can be particularly hard hit as funding and other resources are diverted, and the economic condition of the community worsens. It can take decades for a community to recover financially from a disaster, increasing existing disparities. Sexual Violence in Disasters deeply delves into how disaster response and preparedness frequently fails to consult and take into account the needs of oppressed communities, such as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, LGBTQ, disabled, and immigrant communities.

Community Healing, Mutual Aid, and Prevention

Disasters can cut survivors off from loved ones, community, and support services, reducing their access to social support, and increasing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Increased threats to physical safety, disrupted routines, and restricted choices make it difficult for those who have experienced previous trauma to heal. During times of crisis and high stress, many historically marginalized communities turn to handed down knowledge of strategies and traditions for survival, that are community based and draw on shared experiences and resilience. Service providers need to listen to the communities they serve, and support the healing practices of oppressed communities, particularly  Black, Indigenous,  people of color (BIPOC). For many, religion and spirituality can be an essential source of healing, empowerment, and support, and mainstream service providers should consider ways in which they can support these practices and organizations throughout and after a disaster. Connecting with traditional practices of food production and medicine, and sharing those with the community can not only help communities physically survive, but serve as a source of healing and resilience. Many marginalized communities already have existing mutual aid networks that can serve as the starting point for distributing knowledge and resources both during and after a disaster. Mutual aid networks strengthen protective factors against multiple forms of violence by forming and building up community connections, coordinating resource and service provision, and fostering a prosocial environment. Mainstream service providers and government agencies partnering with mutual aid networks need to remain humble and acknowledge the lived experiences mutual aid network members bring to the table, as well as to take their directions from the needs of the community as the community defines them. In all work with survivors, it is important to keep in mind that they are experts in their own lives and lived experiences, and that services should be designed and/or adapted with their needs at the forefront. 

PreventConnect’s April 2020 web conference, Preventing Violence in Our Homes: Meeting this moment with connection, care, and justice, featured guests talking about their communities’ experiences with COVID-19 and emerging strategies to understand community needs and respond to them. 

Reaching People Where They’re At

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many survivor services and other community organizations adapted to better meet community needs, understanding that healing and prevention can only come after basic needs, such as shelter, food, and safety are met. This meant many survivor service organizations expanded services or partnered with local organizations to provide financial and material support, such as paying for hotel rooms, becoming a distribution site for essential goods, offering technology, and providing information about and assistance with applying for unemployment, utilities and rent assistance, and food benefit programs. 

Finding ways to reach people where they are, especially during a disaster, is important. Many health clinics partnered with grocery stores, pharmacies, schools, religious organizations, and other community services and essential businesses to make their COVID-19 vaccination clinics more readily accessible. Health clinics also partnered with trusted community organizations and members, such as tribal elders, religious organizations, disability service providers, and community activists, to both better reach and to foster trust among marginalized communities who have been harmed by health care providers and the healthcare system in the past. It is of particular importance to note that many people in BIPOC, LGBTQ and the disabilities communities have been harmed by racist, ableist, homophobic and transphobic health care systems and providers, and that these communities also must cope with generational trauma caused by historic harms inflicted by the medical community. The harm these communities have experienced at the hand of the medical community can prevent them from seeking health care even in disasters or related to sexual violence. The health care system and health care providers must do better and dismantle the oppressive systems and the bias within their organizations and themselves to be able to better serve people belonging to  BIPOC, LGBTQ, and disabilities communities. Forming partnerships with community organizations can help to foster trust among marginalized communities about your organization and making changes to your service provision based on feedback from those community organizations can make your services culturally inclusive.

Check out part 2 of this blog to learn more about this new resource, including how community partnerships can help address disaster response and prevention..

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