Andrea Quijije Garcia lost her home in the earthquake that hit Ecuador’s coast last year, and spent almost two weeks sleeping on the floor of a local church. She shared the small space with at least 40 other families. Most of them had to stay long after Garcia left, since they were unable to find new housing.
Garcia’s small town of Bahia de Caraquez, in the coastal province of Manabi, was one of the worst affected by the 7.8 magnitude quake. Over 80% of the town was destroyed, and even today most of the center remains in ruins since there are no funds for reconstruction. The rest of those in Bahia who lost their homes went to live in government camps, or makeshift tents made of bamboo poles and plastic tarps. Over a year later, many families are still living this way – without real accommodation, privacy, or any sense of security.
Cases of violence, assault, and depression inside the shelters were revealing themselves ever more frequently, leaving women and children in particularly vulnerable situations. It became clear to Garcia that women were in desperate need of safe spaces and autonomy. This is how the group Tejedoras Manabitas (Manabi Weavers) was born.
“We focus on the violence against women, because we saw that the earthquake revealed violence and domestic abuse inside homes, and caused emotional destruction,” says Garcia of how the organization started. “Everyone was walking around depressed.”
In the weeks immediately following the earthquake, Garcia and other women’s rights advocates seemed to come together naturally. They formed small groups with women from affected communities, and began to circulate the neighborhoods, talking and listening to people. They encouraged people to report cases of abuse, and provided a safe space for women who were victims – soon, similar groups began to emerge across the province.
Simply listening to people’s concerns became a large part of the process of freeing the tensions that people were living with, says Garcia. The pressures of not having a house, a job, or money, or being sick and not having access to the appropriate medical attention, all played a part in the heightened sense of insecurity.
And that insecurity wasn’t just a feeling: homeless women and children were being openly harassed in the streets or in shelters. In Bahia alone, there were at least two reported cases of rape in the informal shelters, though the number of cases that went unreported was expected to be much higher.
Those who were staying in official government shelters were supposedly more protected because of the increased police and military presence in these areas, but there were numerous reported incidents of military personnel staring inappropriately at young women in the camps and asking for their phone numbers.
“It’s a place where you [feel] harassed…because the looks were terrible,” says Garcia of the officers’ gazes, and their history of using the power of their uniforms to intimidate young women sexually. Under these circumstances, there were no safe places to retreat to, and similar issues were arising across the province.
Natural Disasters Take a Toll on Women
It’s not unusual for women and children to suffer the worst after a natural disaster, and to endure particular violence. The United Nations, the World Health Organization, and many other independent studies have all highlighted these issues before. According to a joint study by Northumbria University and the Gender and Disaster Network, women die at a rate 14 times higher than men or children in natural disasters, particularly within cultures where women are more expected to spend the majority of their time at home, since home is exactly where these deaths most often occur. This was certainly the case in Ecuador, where 329 women died compared to 282 men.