Protecting economic, social and cultural rights in the aftermath of natural disasters

In recent years, the world has seen an increase in natural disasters. In 2017 alone there has been flash flooding in Bangladesh, the mudslide in Sierra Leone, and three hurricanes in the Caribbean Sea and off the coast of the United States ravaging people and their homes. Whether it is increased rainfall following periods of drought or warmer ocean temperatures providing the right ingredients for more frequent hurricanes and cyclones, these frequent natural disasters often lead to loss of life. However, we also need to think about those who survive, they are, the people who are displaced. In September, island communities across the Caribbean have been dealing with the consequences for those people.

1400 residents of Barbuda were displaced and thousands across the island of Antigua and Barbuda were negatively affected by Hurricane Irma. In Antigua and Barbuda, a population of 22 000 people was affected by the storm, including 650 pregnant women. It is often the case that in the aftermath of natural disasters that governments are inclined to prioritise rebuilding homes and infrastructure and rehabilitating the damaged territory instead of ensuring the protection of economic, social and cultural rights in the aftermath of natural disasters. Women and girls are often the worst hit by post-disaster conditions.

Although natural disasters are not, on the face of it, gender specific, research has confirmed that there are “women-specific” concerns. Women are particularly vulnerable in the post-natural disaster period with the disruption of access to education and health care, access to shelter and access to a form of maintenance – displaced from their livelihoods, they become heavily reliant on the government or men to provide. Three examples help show the gravity of the situation:

  • Following the earthquake in Haiti, women complained of pain to the chest area, vaginal infections and concerns and complications to their pregnancies. Women were frequently targets of gender-based violence.
  • Similar occurrences were identified in Sri Lanka – after the tsunami in 2004 women suffered incidents of physical and sexual abuse, rape, gang rape and molestation. Reports indicated that there was a lack of security provisions in the camps that they were occupying. The causal link between natural disaster and these incidents was pinpointed to the economic marginalisation of women causing them to become reliant on men. The living quarters of women post-disaster which were often in camps where the gender separation was inadequate added to the problem.
  • In Louisiana and Mississippi, following the Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2005, reports indicated that the displaced residents now living in trailer parks displayed an increase in cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and respiratory symptoms as they did not have access to local health care services following their displacement.

The general perception is one of natural disasters affecting all people equally without gender discrimination, but research has found that women are significantly worse affected in the post-natural disaster context. The rights to health, housing, and work embodied in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights are undermined during times of natural disaster. Governments party to ICESCR and CEDAW have binding obligations to respect, protect and fulfil these rights. The obligation to fulfil includes the “obligation to provide, facilitate and promote that right. It implies that State parties should adopt appropriate legislative, administrative, budgetary, judicial and other measures to ensure its full realization.” Yet following natural disasters, budgets and human capacity are focused on immediate disaster recovery and relief efforts and ignore the gendered human rights concerns which result in, or exacerbate, the suffering of women after natural disasters. Governments continue to have legal obligations post-natural disaster and need to ensure that there are policies in place that alleviate the current circumstances rather than a repeat of the shortcomings of the past.

Although international legal obligations exist, they are couched in language such as taking ‘measures to ensure its full realization’ and “to the maximum of its available resources.” Therefore, there is a distinction between the unwillingness to use the maximum of their available resources for the realisation of the right and what is needed and the resources that are available. For islands, especially developing States, funds and resources are generally limited and the focus is often on directing available resources to rebuild infrastructure rather than measures to uphold human rights. In consequence of climate change, States will be faced with more frequent natural disasters and therefore, there is an urgent need to have a set of policies that can be shared across islands to ensure that the rights of women are upheld during this period. The impacts of the post-natural disaster on the economic situation of women often have long-term effects. For example, if there are financial support payments to be made, they should be made to individuals rather than to the ‘head’ of the household, often identified as male; if both genders are kept in the same camp there should be safe spaces for women and girls to shower and sleep without molestation and harassment; and access to health care services should be free of charge, especially for pregnant women. Jobs post-disaster should ensure fair pay for work and women should have equal access to work so as to prevent economic marginalisation.

Displacement by a natural disaster is only an inkling of what displacement by the disappearance of islands could signify. Whilst governments have legal obligations towards their citizens and residents within their home country, the increasing threat of climate change begs the question whether the socio-economic rights of climate displaced people following the submersion of an island would be upheld in their host country. If the refugee situation in Somalia or Syria is an indicator, the circumstances are worrying and one that islands, and the international community need to prepare for.


Angelique Pouponneau

Associate – Island Rights Initiative