Securing Relief for Women and Girls in Dominica’s Devastation

I was born in Dominica, a small island of just over 71,000 people in the Caribbean that many people have never heard of. As a girl, I was lucky to grow up eating salted codfish and bakes, dancing to some of the best music in the Caribbean, and enjoying the island’s seemingly unending crystal seas and unspoiled nature trails. I knew the 750-square km island inside-and-out.

But on September 19, the night after we experienced the most powerful storm in our island’s history, I awoke to a strange country.

DFID / Creative Commons

It was nothing like I have ever seen before. Entire rooftops whipped and tumbled through the air, homes filled with water, and the usually-bustling streets of Rouseu were eerily quiet. Buildings became memories, as virtually none were left untouched, including government centers, hospitals and health centers like the Dominica Planned Parenthood Association’s main clinic in the capital city. The storm destroyed many bridges and roads, leaving some communities unreachable except by boat. As our honorable Prime Minister Skerrit told the UN General Assembly, “the desolation is beyond imagination.” More than two months after the storm hit, many remain missing and experts believe that the recovery process may take several years and billions of dollars given the sheer scope of the devastation.

Since the storm hit, I have been working on the front lines of relief efforts. I have traveled with officials to help rural communities and posted updates on social media to keep my friends, other Dominicans up-to-date on food and water donations, electricity availability, road closures and other relief efforts. These are visible, tangible needs that are easily brought to life by photojournalists, but they are not the only ones. As the United Nations and other agencies begin to mobilize much-needed funding for these recovery efforts, we cannot forget about the specific challenges that women and girls face in humanitarian crises.

Take the 2010 earthquake in Haiti for example. The hardships experienced by the general population following the earthquake are well-known and well-documented: people who lost their homes lived in informal tent cities and lacked adequate access to clean water, food, sanitation and privacy. Unemployment and the tremendous economic loss experienced by far too many Haitians led some to looting and violence in the camps as international agencies mobilized funds to meet the needs of those most affected.

Yet only a small percentage of those funds were earmarked to help women and girls who were at a heightened risk of violence, sexual assault, and death during childbirth following the quake. Access to basic reproductive healthcare like contraception remained out of reach for many, in addition to care and counseling for survivors of sexual violence. The rate of sexual assault rose by 20 percent, and pregnancy rates in displaced person camps were three times higher than in urban areas before the disaster in a country with a persistently high maternal mortality rate. At the same time, many women continued to shoulder the burden of being the primary caregivers for their families at a time when food and water were luxury items and uncertainty about the future ran deep.

In short, disasters tend to bring to light the multiple inequalities that women and girls face day-to-day. In times of disaster and in times of calm, we face street harassment, violence, judgement, and a maddening slowness to answer our demands for equality.  Harmful societal norms tell us what we can and cannot do and how we should behave. We face barriers to accessing contraceptives and other basic reproductive healthcare, barriers that I work to eliminate as a volunteer with the Dominica Planned Parenthood Association and as a member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region’s Youth Network. And the bottom line is that we can do better—and we will if we pay attention to what women and girls need.

The full devastation we have experienced is burdensome and huge, but people on the frontlines like myself need to continue to include education on things like menstrual hygiene—topics that might not immediately come to mind when disasters hit—in our relief efforts. In the past few weeks, I have heard stories of women searching for maxi pads to no avail. One man who requested a pack for his daughter was turned away by those who were there to give. Soon, adolescent girls will be back in school, and the lack of sanitary pads could become a serious obstacle to school attendance and even, performance.

Equally important is work with local organizations and leaders that know the realities women and girls face. I visited the Dominica Planned Parenthood Clinic a few days after the disaster hit, and was happy to see patrons coming into purchase pills and other contraception. Many of the products were distributed free-of-charge as accessing bank accounts was impossible for many. We know sexual and reproductive healthcare is of key importance to women, and will continue to serve in that regard.

Rebuilding the country I call home will take time, patience and a commitment from all Dominicans. It will require ongoing support from other Caribbean nations who have already begun mobilizing and providing support, as well as support from international agencies and donor governments. Most of all, it will require us to take a nuanced approach to meeting the needs of those who have—and will continue—to suffer the most in the wake of this tragedy, particularly the women and girls who need our support and solidarity now more than ever.


Khadijah Moore is a volunteer with the Dominica Planned Parenthood Association and a member of the IPPF/WHR Youth Network.