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Structural Violence and Systemic Inequalities in Disaster Response: A Case for Feminist Strategies


by Kirthi Jayakumar

Disaster has adverse impacts on everyone, but those impacts are always unequal. Inherently because of socio-economic structures and differences among people, these impacts are particularly heavier on those that are already at a disadvantage, and because systems and structures responding to these impacts in the post-disaster state are invariably top-down, informed by those serving rather than those sought to be served, and seldom question systemic obstacles that amplify these adverse impacts. This is as true of pandemics as it is true of earthquakes.




Structures that fail
While it is undoubtedly true that a disaster causes impacts that lean heavily on established systems regardless of where it happens, it is also true that much of the failure of these systems to rise to the occasion lie in the very nature of the structures themselves. A systemic sense of inequality is coded into these structures, and this manifests in structural violence externally. These realities lie bare before the world to see currently, with the COVID-19 pandemic. Intrinsic to most systems and infrastructural apparatus to respond to large public health challenges is a certain measure of othering, largely based on race. Globally, people of Asian descent face hate and xenophobia – a reaction informed by fear, misinformation, and the notion that epidemics are caused by “others.” From the US and UK where people of Asian descent are treated with disdain, to India where people from the Northeastern parts of the country are threatened and spat on, the xenophobic backlash is heavily indicative of the inequalities inherent in the system.

In the words of EdnaBonhomme (2020), “Pandemics do not materialise in isolation. They are part and parcel of capitalism and colonisation.” She explains that products of capitalism, ranging from war to migration and mass production to increased travel, have all contributed to the large-scale proliferation of disease. For the longest time, privileged and developed countries have tended to stay outside the bell jar, observing, donating, wringing their hands, and treating disease outbreaks as events happening far away from them, with no direct challenge to them. Rather than introspect on their readiness and capacity to handle these eventualities in their countries, the general notion of treating diseases and epidemics as something that affected the developing nations of the world, the less developed nations of the world, and “others” prevailed. Today, most developed nations in the world are struggling to cope with the impact of the virus – a difficult reality that shines a light on the lack of disaster-preparedness.  

A Feminist Approach to Disaster Preparedness
A common thread uniting the structures in place world over is that were constituted by those in power for those they wielded that power over – in the Global North, these systems already existed as the norm, and in the Global South, they were constructed during and after colonialism on the foundations of the powerful. This notion of “power” continues to dictate political trajectories, and constant efforts to keep that power in the hands of those that wield it continue to be made. In this pursuit of power, then, the voices of those whose identities are tied to the land historically, ethnically, and culturally, are completely disregarded.  

Taking a leaf out of feminist foreign policy, which the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy defines as "a framework which elevates the everyday lived experience of marginalized communities to the forefront and provides a broader and deeper analysis of global issues," there may be a viable solution in taking a feminist approach to disaster response. Acknowledging the everyday lived experience of marginalized communities and the roles structural violence plays in keeping inequality alive can help not only check these systems and rework them entirely, but can also go a long way in mitigating the dangerous impact of disaster.

Disaster has a way of exposing the unequal systems that propel and shape the world order in its current form – and these systems serve the interests of very few. It is high time that this oppressive, structural-violence-centered approach to disaster response is dismantled. A good starting point would be the acknowledgment of this structural violence, and an attempt to rework these oppressive systems, while constantly dedicating efforts toward the inclusion of all relevant voices in shaping the futures of these regions.

References:
Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (n.d.). “What is Feminist Foreign Policy?”[Online] 

Bonhomme, Edna, (2020). What coronavirus has taught us about inequality. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/coronavirus-taught-inequality-200316204401117.html