This past fall, hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in their wake without the necessities for survival. More than three months after Hurricane Maria’s landfall, the island is still in crisis. American citizens are struggling without electricity and clean water; and businesses remain closed, which has left thousands of people unemployed and impoverished. The U.S. response to these devastating natural disasters has been lackluster at best: Congress was unable to pass a disaster relief package before the winter holiday, punting the issue into the 2018 legislative session. And early in 2018, a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said that the agency planned to end its distribution of food and water to the island on January 31; fortunately, that decision was reversed after a great deal of pushback from Puerto Rican officials, members of Congress, stakeholder organizations, and the diaspora.
However, even before Hurricane Maria hit the island, Puerto Rico exhibited several indicators of gender inequality, including higher rates of women in poverty than men—with women making up about 52 percent of Puerto Rico’s population. In the aftermath of a disaster, gender inequalities are merely exacerbated and women suffer from increased exposure to sexual and domestic violence; worsened access to reproductive health care and hygiene products; and increased caregiving responsibilities for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Overall, these factors significantly affect women’s ability to acquire recovery resources.
In order to accommodate the unique needs of women after disasters, it is important that President Trump’s budget proposal, set to release early next week, include adequate funding for disaster relief to areas where low-income women, women of color, and women with disabilities are disproportionately affected.
Increased violence against women
Disaster-stricken areas often experience increased sexual and domestic violence due to a lack of infrastructure and resources that would ordinarily prevent violence, as well as delays in reporting, which can lead to a lack of accountability for perpetrators of violence. As climate change fuels more powerful and frequent storms, heat waves, floods, and other extreme weather, women are likely to face escalating levels of violence triggered by more disasters. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has identified climate change as, “a threat multiplier for women and girls.” Disasters place women in situations where, out of necessity, they are more likely to experience precarious situations, such as living in a crowded shelter or navigating darkness due to power outages, all while searching for food, shelter, and other resources. Disasters also exacerbate feelings of stress, fear, and helplessness—factors that contribute toward an increased desire for power and control, which are often motivators for perpetrators of violence. Furthermore, the fact that women are traditionally caregivers merely exacerbates this problem, as women are more likely than men to bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities and therefore must accept crowded or precarious shelter—or search for other resources quickly—which puts them at risk of violence.
Following Hurricane Maria, certain conditions have heightened the risk of violence against women in Puerto Rico. The island exhibited high rates of violence against women even before the disasters; it suffered from one of the world’s worst rates of intimate partner violence, and experts in the country blame the situation on insufficient funding and political support for anti-violence legislation. In an environment that already exhibits high rates of feminized poverty and violence against women, disasters create conditions that expose women to increased violence—such as a lack of law enforcement, which reduces accountability for abusers, and the scarcity of basic provisions.
Additionally, Puerto Rico has long suffered high rates of crime related to poverty, unemployment, and the drug trade. After Hurricane Maria, these factors have only escalated, bolstered by the constant darkness and shortage of law enforcement on the island. And since higher rates of overall violent crime are linked to higher rates of violence against women, the latter will also inevitably increase during the aftermath of Maria.
Limited access to reproductive health care
During disasters, traveling to get medical assistance of any kind is challenging due to infrastructure breakdowns that complicate transportation. However, reproductive health care, in particular, carries a unique set of barriers. The stigma and logistical obstacles that prevent access to reproductive health care intensify following disasters, creating additional challenges for women to overcome when attempting to access these vital services—especially abortion. For example, because of damaged roads and limits on public transportation, a woman may have to travel a greater distance to reach the nearest health clinic in order to obtain an abortion; yet she might still encounter a mandatory 24-hour waiting period. These types of experiences are expensive and mentally harrowing; furthermore, they disproportionately hurt populations that are already marginalized, as low-income people are more likely to live in flood-prone areas and less likely to have the resources necessary to relocate when a disaster is impending. On top of this, women’s caregiving responsibilities are likely to hinder their ability and willingness to travel long distances—often across state lines—to pay for abortions since food, shelter, and other resources are in much higher demand.
Puerto Rico also has local restrictions on abortion that limit access during the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Maria. The island is subject to the Hyde Amendment, which means that no federal funding can be used to pay for most abortions. Due to the high cost, lack of insurance coverage, and stigma surrounding the procedure, abortion is already out of reach for most low-income communities and for those experiencing poverty. For example, abortion providers in Puerto Rico must be licensed as ambulatory service centers and have these licenses renewed every two years—an unnecessary restriction referred to as a targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law. These limitations are exacerbated by the logistical debacles imposed by hurricanes and make access to abortion and reproductive health extremely challenging for women to acquire.
Limited access to feminine hygiene supplies
Hurricanes also affect women’s access to feminine hygiene supplies. Ordinarily, due to their relatively high cost, hygiene supplies can be challenging to acquire for those living in poverty. In the aftermath of a disaster, however, they are even harder to acquire. Agencies and nonprofits rarely include these supplies on their lists of resources needed during recovery and therefore often do not provide them in relief packages. The recovery response to Hurricane Maria was particularly slipshod. President Donald Trump did not hold a White House Situation Room briefing until six days after landfall and blamed the island, via Twitter, for the post-hurricane “financial crisis.” This delay inevitably weakened efforts at recovery that could have improved women’s access to feminine hygiene products in the immediate aftermath of Maria.
Caregiving duties place additional burden on women
Women’s traditional role as caregivers often increases their responsibilities during the aftermath of a natural disaster, often to the detriment of their financial security. Women—especially women of color—are more likely to be tasked with caregiving duties for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. During an event such as Hurricane Maria, this can place them at greater risk of economic insecurity. For example, women’s role as primary caregiver can influence their evacuation decisions, as they often opt to remain in precarious areas because it would be too difficult to relocate multiple people.
Caregiving can also affect women’s ability to find work or continue working. Since it is difficult to find child or elder care services following a natural disaster, women are often unable to spend extended periods away from home. Additionally, the caregiving role causes women to suffer from insufficient access to resources, as they often have to share food—as well as shelter—with their children and family members. From 2010 through 2014, 42 percent of Puerto Rican households were female-headed with children, meaning that during that time, 148,642 families were managed by a single mother without a male present in the home. Since 2006, this share has steadily increased and, if the trend continues, it is likely to continue to grow.
Following Hurricane Maria, in order to accommodate Puerto Rican women’s needs, disaster relief legislation and funding should consider the unique pressures they face. The established body of research shows that, after disasters, women face disadvantageous circumstances. Unless lawmakers take this into account, as the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events continue to rise, women will continue to experience increased violence, limited access to resources and reproductive health care, and the burden of caregiving responsibilities.
Anusha Ravi is a research assistant for the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress.