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Women's Response to Chile Earthquake Immediate and Ongoing

Carmen Duran 2

Journalist and human rights specialist Maxine Lowy reports that women's advocates have expanded their focus to help women rebuild their communities in southern Chile after the devastating earthquake of 2010.

Four months since one of the most potent earthquakes in history shattered communities and lives in southern Chile, women have proven to be key protagonists in reconstruction and recovery initiatives.

In the pre-dawn hours of February 27, an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale struck south central Chile, resulting in 500 deaths and directly affecting two million people by the destruction of more than 200,000 homes and workplaces.

While natural disasters transversely affect men and women, a Pan American Health Organization information sheet of 2001 signals that women are disproportionately affected as a result of the position in society. Media frequently focus their lenses on dazed women and children in the wake of hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes while failing to show that women also play a vital role in mitigation and emergency response to such natural disasters.

Some 300 kilometers south of Santiago, in Talca, a city of 200,000 where practically every building in the historic center collapsed and at least 83 people lost their lives, Benedicta Aravena, social projects coordinator for the feminist organization Centro Social Quidel, says women immediately set up soup kitchens to feed not only their own families but neighbors as well. Subsequently, housing advocacy committees, all led by women, have been formed to demand adequate housing and obtain subsidies to rebuild or buy new homes in a city where 2,400 emergency cabins, which barely protect from the harsh winds and rains of the southern hemisphere winter, have been distributed.

Centro Social Quidel itself became homeless, when the building it shared with four other women’s organizations collapsed in the earthquake.

“I went around constantly with a lump in my throat. The best way to overcome the emotional earthquake was to get out of the house. Since there was no telephone, Internet, electricity or even public transportation, early each morning until late at night we would walk to shelters and neighborhoods all over town to find out what women needed. Every day we heard about a woman whose house caved in, another who was sleeping in the street and someone who had given birth under a grape arbor,” Aravena recalled.

In the initial days and weeks when basic goods were in short supply, Talca women devised a barter network as a system of mutual aid. A woman who had flour but needed sugar would trade what she had with another. Women also shared and exchanged diapers, sanitary napkins, shampoo, and other hard to come by necessities.

Centro Social Quidel, created 10 years ago to prevent domestic violence and treat its victims, has confirmed reports from local clinics that violence to women is on the rise. Empty lots, piles of rubble, and each portable chemical toilet shared by three families in the emergency camps create situations of vulnerability. Men’s frustration at the loss of workplaces—12 percent of workers are unemployed in Talca since the earthquake—is a tinder keg, threatening to ignite in sexual and psychological abuse to women, Aravena fears. Last month the organization held the first of a series of workshops designed to help prevent domestic violence.

Despite the visible activism of women since the days after the quake, Aravena complains that the city government “has never called us to explain its reconstruction plan,” suggesting to her that officials do not value women community leaders. “We want real participation in rebuilding our neighborhoods,” she insists.

A critical source of support for Centro Cultural Quidel and 12 other women’s organizations in the emergency zone has been Fondo Alquimia, the only foundation in Chile that exclusively funds organizations engaged in women’s rights and feminist activism. The first Monday after the earthquake the foundation set in motion its “Women Donate to Women” fundraising drive, both within Chile and internationally, to channel resources to women’s organizations in the affected areas. The initial disbursement, which continued through late April, consisted of approximately US$100, non-solicited and no-strings-attached, for each organization to spend on medication, water, food, blankets and any other pressing needs they determined in the emergency situation. The next two phases of Fondo Alquimia support are directed, first, to closely monitor respect for women’s rights by funding activities such as Centro Social Quidel’s domestic violence workshop, and, second, to reactivate women’s organizations. The latter contemplates not only a year’s operating expenses but also containment therapy to heal souls damaged by fear, stress, and uncertainty.

Maria Paz Becerra, organizational support staffer for Fondo Alquimia, has observed an unforeseen positive effect of the crisis situation. “Prior to the earthquake, a high percentage of groups, like Quidel, worked only on traditional women’s issues such as domestic violence. The disaster compelled them to address concerns such as employment and housing they had never considered before, opening dialogue with other community sectors and regional government authorities.” The formation of broader alliances, Becerra says, has strengthened women’s organizations. “Despite, the terrible experience they endured, I believe that down the road they will emerge stronger and revitalized.”

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