Gender dimensions in government’s slow response to disasters

Makeshift shelters that people are living in in the IDPs. PHOTO/JOEL KAGUTA

What you need to know:

  • Over ten years, Kasese district has been struck by landslides and floods. In most cases, the long-lasting impacts of the disasters include loss of livelihoods, early marriages and spikes in defilement levels.
  • This publication explores the experiences of women in the Internally Displaced People’s camps in the district and identifies the factors increasing their vulnerability.

Global statistics show that when disaster strikes, women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die. They are also more likely to face the long-lasting impact of disasters. A 2016 study titled, Disaster, Disruption to Family Life, and Intimate Partner Violence: The Case of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti, found that women living in the most devastated areas were more likely to experience physical and sexual intimate partner violence for up to two years after the disaster. 

According to the study, the consequences of the impact of the earthquake affected men’s controlling behavior, which is linked to the risk of intimate partner violence.

In 2020, Uganda was ranked 15th globally and 1st in Africa, among countries most affected by climate related natural disasters, according to statistics from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM). Over 80 percent of the districts in country are prone to droughts, with over 25 percent of the population exposed to the impacts of floods.

The 2010, the OPM formulated the National Policy for Disaster Preparedness and Management, a cross-sectoral policy whose goal is to establish institutions and mechanisms that will reduce vulnerability of people, livestock, plants and wildlife to disasters in Uganda. 

However, responding to disasters requires huge financial obligations, exposing the government’s disaster response systems, which are not geared towards the specific needs of women and children, to criticism. 

On the night of May 22, hundreds of residents of Kasese town were forced to seek shelter when rivers Nyamwamba, Nyamughasana and Mubuku burst their banks and flooded their homes. This was not the first time the rivers were overflowing, though. Currently, the district, which has witnessed climate-related disasters for almost a decade, has more than 15 internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps in the sub-counties of Kyondo, Maliba, Kyarumba, and the town councils of Kyarumba and Ibanda-Kyanya. 

Catherine Nakasinde giving out reusable sanitary towels

More than 4,500 people, majority being women and children, are living in deplorable conditions in these camps, facing the ever-present risk of gender-based violence.  

Dorothy Muhindo, who is camping at Kanyatsi Roman Catholic Church, in Kyondo sub-county, is nine months pregnant. We find her sitting with a group of women, gazing at the hills in a distance, as they contemplate the future. On the fateful night, a landslide destroyed her three-roomed permanent house. She lost everything.

“Everything I had bought in preparation for giving birth, was destroyed. I am now helpless. There is only abject poverty within this camp. We are appealing to anyone who can help us, to hurry and help us,” she says.

Given her condition, the distraught woman is worried about what will happen to her when she goes into labour. 

“I went for an antenatal checkup yesterday and I was told I have low blood pressure. The nurses said my pressure had dropped because of the shock of seeing my house collapse with everything in it. These days, I cannot even afford to sleep on a mattress. I sleep on a mat on the cold floor of the church,” she says.

Low blood pressure or hypotension causes dizziness and constant fatigue because the heart, brain and other parts of the body may not get enough blood. In some cases, in a pregnant woman, very low blood pressure can be dangerous to mother and child.   

Period poverty and general hygiene
In situations where abject poverty is the norm, menstrual health hygiene takes the back seat. According to UN Women, every month, more than two billion people around the world menstruate, yet millions of women and girls cannot afford menstrual products or access to safe water and sanitation to manage their menstrual health and hygiene. 

“Women and young girls here are using pieces of worn-out cloths as sanitary towels. When they want to change, they walk to the neighbouring homes and ask for permission to use their latrines. Unfortunately, we do not have enough water here so some of the cloths are reused without washing them,” Muhindo discloses. 

Catherine Nakasinde is a child specialist by profession and the current chairperson for Western Uganda Humanitarian Platform, a program that comes together to support local actors to be able to respond to emergencies in their communities. She concedes that women are the most affected by the government’s late response to the disasters in Kasese. 

Makeshift shelters that people are living in in the IDPs. PHOTOS/ JOEL KAGUTA

“When we held an engagement with adolescent girls about their sexual reproductive health rights, we were informed that some men were offering to buy them sanitary pads, on the condition that they (the girls) marry them. We advised the girls to move in groups to avoid being ambushed and encouraged their brothers to escourt them to the rivers to fetch water. Besides scholastic materials, we provided dignity kits, which include a basin, soap and reusable sanitary pads, to these girls,” she says. 

Juliet Kabugho, a Senior Four student, lives with her mother and siblings at camp in Bwitho Primary School, in Kyarumba sub-county. The teenager highlights the delicate task of balancing her current needs and her future aspirations.

“We can hardly afford to buy Vaseline and sanitary towels, and yet they are necessary. Some girls are on the lookout for boys who can give them money. I think this is dangerous because you can get pregnant and lose your future,” she says. 

The camp at Bwitho Primary School has only a one-stance pit latrine, which is serving 1,502 people. 

Lack of privacy raises GBV concerns 
Esther Ithungu, who is camped at Kabingo Anglican Church of Uganda in Kyarumba sub-county, says her camp has no food or clean and safe drinking water.

“We walk long distances to fetch water from the rivers and beg for food, because you cannot ask for food from one family more than once. Also, the way we sleep violates our marital rights. We sleep in unroofed makeshift huts, which we cannot share with our husbands. There is nowhere in this place where you can meet your partner in private. We fear our men will be attracted to sex workers in nearby towns. If only the government could donate a tent to each family,” she says.

Dorothy Muhindo at Kanyatsi Roman Catholic Church. PHOTO/JOEL KAGUTA

Emmy Muthaghanzwa, the secretary for Kanyatsi camp told Monitor that he has received a number of complaints from couples accusing each other of infidelity.

“There are misunderstandings about women and men because couples can no longer get each other. So, you find some men are going outside the camp, looking for different women. Even inside the camp, enmity between women is increasing because of the infidelity of their men. This is all caused by the challenges of congestion,” he says.

Unfortunately, in many of these camps are characterised by lack of privacy because men, women, boys, and girls sleep in the same room.

“One of the things we identified is that everyone uses the same pit latrine. There is no distinction for men and women. We tried to talk to the camp leaders about the protection of women and girls as they use this latrine. We do not want to hear cases of girls being raped as they were waiting their turn to use the latrine,” Nakasinde says.

Since some of the camps are located in schools, there are no bathrooms. If one wants to take a bath they take their basins to the bush for some privacy. Bathing in the bush also exposes them to risks of insecurity. 

Yeresi Kyakimwa Kakuha, another IDP camped at Bwithu Primary School complains of the pitch darkness in the camps.

“We don’t have lamps, instead we are sleeping in darkness. Some of our daughters have begun escaping from us under the cover of darkness. We fear that they may be impregnated. This makes us believe that if we had some form of illumination after darkness falls, we would be able to monitor their movements,” she says.

Time for government to wake up 
Ivan Bwambale, the chairperson of Kyarumba Town Council, acknowledged that the suffering the women and girls in the camps and advised that they should be relocated.

“They are sleeping on dry banana leaves and drinking dirty water from the rivers. Instead of waiting for a disaster to happen, these people should be allowed to go to their extended families because there is no security in the camps. The government has the potential to relocate them to safer places,” he says.

In May 2020 after River Nyamwamba burst its bank, affected families were carted off to Muhokya IDP camp in Muhokya Town Council, where they are still residing today, four years later. Lucas Bwambale Buhaka, an opinion leader in the district, says keeping people in IDPs for more than a year is against the law. 

“After a year in an IDP camp, the victims must be resettled. The government needs to differentiate between an IDP camp and a refugee settlement because both have laws governing their management. For example, the situation in Muhokya contravenes some international laws. Children are being born in that camp and if we are not careful, some of them will grow to adulthood there. That place is now becoming a refugee camp, and citizens cannot be refugees in their country,” he says.

The difference between a refugee and an IDP can be the difference between getting assistance or not. A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their home country and cross and international border because of war or persecution. Refugees are registered with the United Nations (UN) and this allows them access to international air and legal protections guarantied by the UN.  

Women and girls in an IDP camp

On the other hand, an IDPs have been forced to flee wars or natural disasters but they usually settle within their home countries. Because IDPs don’t cross international borders, they are under the jurisdiction of the government and are not guaranteed the same legal protections or rights as refugees.

Buhaka says prevention of natural disasters is cheaper than responding to them.

“Government has picked interest in responding to disasters as opposed to managing them. The response is an expensive venture. Where someone has lost his or her life, you cannot offer Shs5 million to families. How can that bring back that person? You find a minister coming there with a bus full of Members of Parliament to deliver Shs5 million to a victim yet they have spent over Shs30m in transportation. So, preparing for these disasters will remove these expenses,” he says.

He advises the government to put mitigation measures in place, that will in the long run remove the suffering that women and girls go through every time there is a flood in the district.

“Every sub-county in Kasese district is bordered by a river. The only way to prevent these rivers from flooding is to desilt them. Government official say this is an expensive venture, but you do not need many excavators to desilt a river. All you need is D9 or D10 excavators and the rivers will not flood anymore,” he says.

Desilting is the removal of fine silt or mud that has collected in a river in order to restore its natural capacity without widening or deepening it.

Tragedies, such as the ones that are happening the IDP camps of Kasese district put girls at risk because after they lose their livelihoods, many parents start to see their daughters as startup capital – commodities that can be given to men in exchange for bride price.