Sexual Assaults Increase During Natural Disasters. Newsweek Looks Into Why.

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When disasters like Hurricane Harvey strike, women are far more likely to be negatively affected than other groups.

study published in 2007 by researchers at the London School of Economics and the University of Essex found that natural disasters in 141 countries killed decidedly more women than men between 1981 and 2002.

“In other words, natural disasters (and their subsequent impact) on average kill more women than men or kill women at an earlier age than men,” the researchers wrote.

What is the explanation?

Rachel E. Luft, a Hurricane Katrina survivor and a professor at Seattle University focusing on race and gender intersectionality in the context of social movements, tells Newsweek that “pre-existing structural inequalities…determine our experience of disaster, and race and gender are intrinsic to these processes.”

“Every stage of disaster—preparation, impact, recovery—happens in ways that reinforce our raced, classed and gendered experiences…. It’s not as simple as some people being more competent or resilient to survive disaster. It’s that those people have often been structurally enabled to have more resources to work with,” Luft says.

Luft points to women’s extra caregiving responsibilities as a prime example.

She says, “Women, and especially women of color, are overwhelmingly tasked personally and professionally with caring for children, the elderly and people with disabilities. So even the simple decision about whether to evacuate in advance of a disaster often means being responsible for multiple people. This isn’t a deficit in women; it’s an extra responsibility that makes personal survival decisions and the resources to support them much more difficult.”

To put it another way, disasters exacerbate existing inequalities, meaning marginalized groups tend to get hit the hardest.

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