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Disasters and violence against women and girls: Can disasters shake social norms and power relations?

The destruction and loss caused by disasters affect multiple aspects of people’s well-being, both physically and socially. Effects are manifested in health and living conditions, as well as in interactions within the family and wider community. Looking at the impacts of disasters on social relations of affected communities is vital, not only in order to uncover patterns of vulnerability (i.e. why and how people are affected by disasters) but also to better understand their capacities (i.e. how people cope with and recover from shocks and stresses) and ultimately their resilience.

Understanding disasters through a social relations lens helps make visible the social structure of communities, organisations, households, and intimate relationships within which disastrous events unfold (Enarson, 1999). Placing the attention on gender relations in particular is a critical way to better comprehend power dynamics (see Agarwal, 1997 for a discussion on factors that affect bargaining power) and how these might be challenged or exacerbated during and after a crisis. This is important as it aids more effective targeting of entry points for humanitarian assistance and in improving the relevance of projects in order to enhance communities’ resilience.

The international aid delivery system often fails to recognise the conflicts of interest existing in affected communities’ social structures (Anderson and Woodrow, 1989; Berke et al., 2005). In times of crisis, social norms (i.e. the informal and formal laws, beliefs and practices that help to determine collective understanding of what are acceptable attitudes and behaviours- Harper et al., 2014) are played out within a new space, opening up the possibility for producing alternative social interactions. These can lead to opportunities for women and men to take on new responsibilities. Existing socioeconomic and gender-based inequalities, discriminatory gendered norms, power abuse and the resulting pervasive violence against women and girls (VAWG), however, are also able to occupy this space, therefore increasing the potential for worsening conditions in the aftermath of disasters and leaving those traditionally marginalised even more vulnerable to subsequent risks.

From the current available literature on disasters and on gender and resilience, we know that disasters affect social relations. How shocks and stresses lead to changes in gendered norms and power relations and whether these changes tend to be to the detriment or the benefit of marginalised groups is still uncertain, however. Moreover, to what extent these changes are transient or may have the potential to challenge durably existing inequalities is unclear. The aim of this paper is to compile evidence from academic studies and Non-Governmental Organisations’ (NGOs) documentation about the impacts of disasters on power relations and gendered norms and to discuss how these types of changes affect people’s resilience. The objective is to highlight knowledge gaps to better understand why and how resilience programming can integrate social dimensions of vulnerability and foster more equal power relations.