New Study Explores the Aftermath for Women
July 10, 2007
Some women displaced by Hurricane Katrina have had to choose between finding basic shelter and guarding their personal safety. Of the estimated 142,000 New Orleans apartments or houses destroyed by the storm, nearly four-fifths were affordable to low-income families. People rendered homeless and unable to rebuild took refuge with extended family and friends. That gave them a place to call home but also left women and children vulnerable to sexual assault and domestic violence, says a new report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The “overcrowding has led to abuse specifically linked to the Katrina experience,” said Avis A. Jones-DeWeever of the IWPR. Much has been written about the race and class fault lines exposed by the disaster nearly two years ago when Katrina ravaged an area the size of Great Britain. The IWPR study, with excerpts released at a congressional briefing June 22, examines the disproportionate impact on women. In addition to overcrowding and an increased threat of domestic violence, women face problems involving health needs, childcare and jobs, among other issues. In some ways, women faced plights after Katrina similar to those confronting victims of other international catastrophes, including the tsunami. Because of their dual roles—as paid workers but also caregivers to children, the elderly and the disabled—women have limited mobility. And those at the bottom of the economic rung before the storms found intensified peril in their wake. “Women and children are fourteen times more likely to die than men are during a disaster,” said Leigh Wintz, executive director of Soroptimist, which funded the IWPR study on women after Katrina. “Following the Asian tsunami, for instance, Oxfam found that women made up more than seventy percent of the casualties.” Jones-DeWeever’s study found that women’s part of the Gulf Coast workforce has declined since Katrina. Ironically, wages have gone up due to the competition for workers—but costs for shelter, food and health care have shot up. A two-bedroom home that used to rent for $601 is $978 today, she said. And women competing for the higher paid jobs in the building trades face job discrimination, said Joan Kuriansky of Wider Opportunities for Women. A flyer she displayed illustrated the problem. It sought “healthy and hardy men” to help rebuild the Gulf Coast. The scarcity of childcare is another formidable obstacle, post-Katrina. More than 3,000 licensed Gulf Coast childcare facilities were damaged or destroyed, and most remain out of service today. Only 10 in Louisiana and one in Mississippi got federal assistance to reopen. A Mississippi Delta congressman whose district was hard hit by Katrina, Rep. Bennie Thompson, is sponsoring legislation that would add emergency childcare to the “critical service” category for federal disaster relief funds, along with such others as shelter, food and medical care. Partnerships forged between business, nonprofit groups, foundations and Mississippi State University got results in reopening childcare centers even without federal funds. More than $600,000 was raised to rebuild centers in Harrison and Hancock Counties in Mississippi, as a result of efforts by the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative with foundations and relief agencies. Chevron, which has a refinery in Pascagoula, worked with the university to map the destruction to the childcare infrastructure in three counties, provided funds and work crews to rebuild 40 childcare centers and partnered with Save the Children to reconstruct others. Shuttered health care facilities affect everyone in Katrina’s path. Women have specific health problems, however. Wintz notes that at any given time, “eighteen to twenty percent of reproductive-age women are pregnant or lactating,” needing not just more food and water but also access to prenatal care and a sanitary place to give birth. New Orleans’ state-funded Charity Hospital system remains closed and many private physicians never returned after the storm. A women’s clinic was due to open this summer, developed by the local chapter of Women of Color Against Violence in partnership with the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. It is urgent to address mental health needs, as well, said Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. While there are reports of higher fatality rates and more cases of depression, the impact also can be severe for the women who came to the rescue of others, without much heed to their own needs: “Women jumped in as caretakers but now they are suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome.” Overall, women “have become critical partners in the rebuilding of ‘community’ in every sense of the word,” Jones-DeWeever said. “ They have been on the ground, from the very beginning, doing everything from trudging through the post-Katrina sludge, lending their sweat to the rescue and cleanup efforts, to organizing family, friends and neighbors to push through seemingly impossible odds to make sure their communities were saved, and not erased from existence.” They’ve done their part, she said. They now deserve “to have their voices heard, their needs addressed” and to be part of the planning that makes sure future disasters don’t replicate the horrors they have endured.