Preventing Sexual Violence in the Wake of Natural Disasters

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

For women and children who are living through Hurricane Harvey, reaching a place of safety from the storm often means exposure to another danger: sexual violence. As Hurricanes Rita and Katrina demonstrated in 2005, natural disasters often create environments ripe for sexual exploitation, with many sexual assaults occurring at crowded evacuation sites and shelters.

As vulnerability to sexual violence increases during national disasters, victims’ ability to respond—including through seeking medical or psychological care, reporting to law enforcement, or seeking justice against perpetrators—diminishes. Victims may not be able to report because communication lines are down and because anti-violence personnel are struggling with their own emergencies. In addition, victims may be unable to physically reach critical services or resources, such as a hospital where they can obtain a rape kit, and law enforcement, which may be focused on rescue efforts. The emergency shelters may not offer enough privacy to facilitate talking about something as personal as having been sexually assaulted.

As our nation comes together to respond to the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey and prepare for Hurricane Irma to reach the mainland, first responders should remain vigilant to help ensure that bad actors do not use the chaos as an opportunity to commit sexual assault. 

Legal Momentum encourages all first responders and volunteers to be familiar with FEMA’s fact sheet on sexual violence during disasters. Evacuation sites should implement the sexual violence prevention practices developed by the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault (LaFASA) and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

These best practices include:
  • Providing private spaces for clothing changes and personal hygiene practices;
  • Ensuring the presence of adequate, trained shelter staff, volunteers, law enforcement and other security personnel, including designated individuals to look out for signs of sexual violence;
  • Creating and distributing to all first responders, shelter staff, and volunteers two short protocols: one on sexual violence prevention methods in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, and the other on how to respond to a report of sexual violence in the immediate aftermath of a disaster;
  • Providing guidance to first responders, staff, volunteers, and law enforcement and implementing protocols for receiving complaints of sexual assault and for assisting victim with reporting or receiving other forms of assistance.
  • Providing mandatory orientation sessions and written resources to educate shelter populations about sexual assault, safety measures, reporting options, and how to identify shelter security officials and locations, as well as safe places that have a constant security presence in place;
  • Ensuring that orientations, trainings, and written resources are translated into the appropriate languages;
  • Implementing identification procedures for evacuees;
  • Conducting background checks for staff and volunteers and implementing protocols for how to handle evacuees who are registered sex offenders;
  • Closing off any areas of the shelter space that cannot be made safe and that might be conducive to the perpetration of a sexual assault;
  • Creating designated areas for children to play under the supervision of adults that provide safe activities, and ensuring that trained sexual violence prevention staff screen the individuals who will supervise these areas;
  • Arranging with law enforcement in neighboring districts and states to receive “courtesy reports” on sexual assaults and ensuring that protocols distributed to first responders include this information; and
  • Ensuring adequate protections for LGBT evacuees.

We urge victims of sexual harassment or violence to consider reporting to first responders, law enforcement, or a rape crisis center.

If you have questions about your legal rights, please feel free to contact Legal Momentum’s Helpline at

Update: Legal Momentum's Staff Attorney, Caitlin McCartney-Gerber, was a guest on CTV's Your Morning on Thursday, September 14, 2017 to talk about how shelters can prevent sexual violence in the wake of natural disasters. Watch the video here.

Contributed by: 

Caitlin McCartney-Gerber