15 November 2013 | by Amanda Farrant
Jaw-dropping scenes of devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan are dominating newspapers and TV screens, but there is another ‘hidden’ danger often neglected during emergencies - sexual exploitation and violence.
Vulnerable to earthquakes, flooding, volcanic eruptions and typhoons - the fragility of the Philippines archipelago is all too clear. As is the monumental response and recovery effort now required by governments, local organisations and aid agencies like Christian Aid.
The Philippines government and charities are well prepared to respond to the country’s regular humanitarian needs, but are now struggling to deliver urgent food, water and medical supplies because of landslides and road blocks from fallen debris.
News reports suggest incidents of looting and violence, as people become increasingly frustrated and desperate to feed their families.
Safety of women and girls
But there is another ‘hidden’ danger often neglected in emergencies. As authorities and charities focus their efforts on providing basic survival tools, many women and girls become increasingly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and violence.
Without safe accommodation in many of the affected areas and with rationed kerosene supplies for lighting, staying safe, especially at night, is increasingly difficult.
Displaced and often without male family members to protect them, women and girls are more exposed to the opportunistic abuse that is exacerbated by the lawless and angry atmosphere that often accompanies a state of emergency.
Those who are safe from outside predators may be at risk from violence within their own family unit as exasperation and cramped and squalid conditions increase the likelihood of domestic violence.
Earlier this year Christian Aid visited poor ‘urban’ households in Mandaue City, Cebu Province, to find out what the biggest challenges were before, during and after disasters. Surprisingly many of the women we spoke to confirmed that domestic violence was a key concern.
'Before women would keep silent'
'Violence against women is present in all levels of life across the Philippines, regardless of whether you are rich or poor,' said Menchu Llesi, a community leader and member of a local women’s organisation that is supported by Christian Aid partner FORGE with funding from the UK Government.
'Before women would only cry and keep silent and do nothing,' explains Menchu. 'Even if they were beaten, they would stick with their husbands because they were afraid their husbands would leave them and they didn’t have money to feed the children, or a way to make a living on their own.'
Fight against domestic violence
Menchu is now a powerful force at the forefront of the fight against domestic violence and disasters. Her fight is personal 'My mum experienced all kinds of abuse by my father – economic, verbal, physical, psychological.'
Using the Republic Act 92 62 which prohibits violence against women and children, Menchu is authorised to issue protection orders against men in the community guilty of domestic violence. It’s dangerous work but she is determined.
The threat of prison helps them to break the cycle. She said: 'A lot of husbands have now spent time in prison. We have even had my father sent to jail, twice.'
Breaking the culture of violence
Menchu’s work, important in its own right, is also part of a wider strategy to prepare communities for emergency situations.
In addition to the early warning system, emergency services and disaster management training provided by local authorities and charities such as Christian Aid, community groups like Menchu’s are empowering local women to become more involved in the neighbourhood, earn their own living and understand their right not to be abused.
The group is working with men too, trying to break the culture of violence inherited from their parents, grandparents and forefathers; helping to build stronger, more resilient communities that are better able to recover from disaster.
Communities that protect women
Menchu said: 'We are compelled to help our community, to work hard and rise up against the challenges, because this is our life, it is our situation. Who else can help solve our problems?'
Video: Power and poverty
Christian Aid’s film Power and poverty in urban settings illustrates how Menchu and other members of her community are working to build communities that protect women, particularly in emergency situations such as this.
How you can help
Donate now We urgently need your help to reach people left homeless and vulnerable. Please donate to our Philippines Typhoon emergency appeal today.
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