I was on vacation here in Nicaragua last week, staying with friends in a gorgeous house at the top of a hill overlooking the Pacific beach town of San Juan del Sur. The house was built by an American expat who's been living and building in Nicaragua since the 1970s-today, he rents his houses out to gringos in search of a quiet vacation spot on the "undiscovered" Nicaraguan coast. The house was palatial, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't relish my stay there. But as we drove down the long, steep driveway and then along the road that leads into town, amidst the English-only Century 21 and ReMax signs advertising cheap properties for foreigners, I couldn't help noticing the wood and corrugated iron dwellings that crowd the ditches on either side of the road-where the real population of San Juan del Sur lives. The vacation houses in the hills are probably sturdy enough to survive a hurricane, but what of the families living in the valley below? September seems a particularly appropriate moment to contemplate the question, since it commemorates not only the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, but also the anniversary of her lesser-known cousin, Hurricane Stan.
A little less than a month after Katrina left thousands dead and thousands more homeless in the U.S. Gulf Coast-as a result of both the magnitude of the storm and the disastrous failure of the so-called relief effort-Stan hit Guatemala. Stan made landfall on September 30th, 2005, and with little media fanfare, proceeded to devastate 775 communities across Guatemala, causing 400 major landslides and 500 minor ones. Entire villages were buried. By mid-October, over 3,000 people had died, 22,000 had been left homeless, and an estimated 3 million (about a quarter of Guatemala's population) had been either directly or indirectly affected by the tragedy. Aid was slow to arrive-between the tsunami, Katrina, and the earthquake in Pakistan, donor countries and their citizens were suffering from disaster fatigue. The government response was lackluster to say the least: less than a week after the tragedy struck, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger told the press, "Right now the emergency has not affected many. The inhabitants from these places are used to these situations and we hope that more difficult times, according to prognoses, we shall overcome." A graduate of the Michael Brown School of Disaster Relief, to be sure.
Unlike Katrina, Stan went largely unnoticed by the international community, but that's where the differences end. Both tragedies took thousands of lives, displaced tens of thousands, and affected millions more. The severity of both disasters was substantially increased by unchecked and under regulated development and deforestation and the massive erosion and climate change they cause. Communities in both Louisiana and Guatemala suffered disproportionately as a result of the levels of poverty in which they were already living when the tragedies struck. And the slow, incompetent nature of both government responses claimed countless additional lives and magnified the impact of the trauma for thousands.
[img_assist|nid=584|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=99]Here's another similarity: both relief efforts failed to adequately address women's reproductive health needs and left women disproportionately vulnerable to violence in their aftermath. A report just released by the Guatemalan division of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) highlights the Guatemalan government's lack of willingness to address the reproductive health dimension of the tragedy, and decries the pervasive violence against women-particularly sexual violence-that occurred in shelters housing Stan survivors. In the aftermath of the tsunami and the earthquake in Pakistan, I remember receiving similar emails from women's organizations working on the ground in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. During and after every one of these tragedies, women were exposed to sexual violence in the shelters. In Pakistan, an estimated 40,000 pregnant women were at high risk for miscarriages and premature deliveries. In Sri Lanka, women were raped in relief camps and women seeking tampons and sanitary napkins were harassed by (primarily male) relief staff in charge of distributing supplies.
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Climate change isn't going away, so we can all expect many more Katrinas, Stans, and tsunamis in our lifetimes. We can take steps to treat the Earth with more respect and we can look deep within ourselves to confront the levels of poverty and inequality that we tolerate nationally and globally, but more than that, we can start learning from our own mistakes. Here's one lesson we can't seem to learn: tragedies affect women and men differently. They leave women disproportionately vulnerable to violence, particularly sexual violence. Women have reproductive health needs that don't go away when tragedy strikes-an eight-months pregnant woman is still eight months pregnant, hurricane or not, and she still needs a safe place to give birth. People need condoms, because people don't stop having sex when tragedy strikes-in fact, they often have more sex (remember 9/11?). Women still need sanitary napkins, couples still need contraception, people living with HIV still need their medications. Needs like these may not make international headlines, but then again, neither did Hurricane Stan.