Tackling hidden needs in the wake of disaster

by Katie Tong | Plan UK
Thursday, 9 January 2014 11:10 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Looking at pictures and TV footage of the devastation caused by a natural disaster like Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), victims’ immediate needs are obvious: shelter, food, warmth, medicine.  Aid agencies were quick to act when the storm hit two months ago.

Having recently returned from the Philippines, I know that hidden needs - often not evident in the media coverage – have also emerged.  Children need support with difficult, sensitive challenges as they rebuild their lives. Girls in particular face specific problems that Plan is working hard to identify – and to combat.

Even before Haiyan, adolescent girls in the Philippines lived with the twin risks of violence and inadequate sexual and maternal health facilities. Abuse in the home and at school is all too common, while teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in south-east Asia. Filipino girls are historically at risk of sexual violence and trafficking too.

After the typhoon, threats like these are more pronounced. Camps for displaced people often provide little provision for girls, without, for example, separate toilet facilities or breastfeeding spaces. This leaves them fighting not only for food and shelter, but against the fears of discrimination and exploitation – simply because they are girls.

Estimates from previous typhoons have shown trafficking can increase by 10% in the wake of a natural disaster, with the majority of the victims girls between 14 and 17. Girls younger still are at a greater risk of sexual abuse because their already subservient position in society is worsened; in the wreckage, they become powerless over their own fate.

Why does this happen? Families can be split up and girls left with no adults to protect them. The chaos of the typhoon itself is one reason for separation, but in the aftermath, adults may be forced to move away to find work, leaving their daughters behind. Families desperate for an income can also be easy prey to traffickers who set to work in displacement camps.

More generally, those with specific needs are at risk of missing out on universally targeted help. Think of Agnes, who gave birth to a baby girl just a few days after Haiyan hit: she was able to get to a clinic in Tacloban and now has a house she is sharing with others. But it’s overcrowded and far from ideal. Agnes’s daughter is just one of an estimated 24,000 babies born each month in affected areas.

What’s clear is that young women have particular needs that must be addressed in a post-disaster recovery. That’s why Plan’s response is designed in consultation with teenage girls. Our teams are collecting data to ensure that we know what girls need and where. Our staff always includes women so that girls can comfortably talk about any difficulties. And we are providing help targeted at girls – opportunities to generate income and safe spaces where they can receive support, advice and sexual and reproductive health services.

Talking to girls and women is vitally important – they know how to keep themselves safe and protected in the short term, and have their own ideas and suggestions as to how to rebuild their community in the longer run.

The particular needs of girls and young women should always be a priority. But in the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan, those needs are even greater – and we’re proud to be working hard to ensure that no girl is left out of the recovery.