Were Women Raped
In New Orleans?
By Lucinda Marshall
15 September, 2005
the wake of Hurricane Katrina, women whose lives were disrupted by the
storm face numerous gender-specific vulnerabilities that commonly occur
with disasters of this magnitude. For instance, while it will be sometime
before the final death toll from Katrina is known, women and children
are more likely to die in natural disasters than men (the Tsunami in
southeast Asia late last year is the most recent example of this). Female
victims of catastrophic events are more likely to lack mobility and
resources as well as having care-taking responsibilities that make it
more difficult for them to flee. Pregnant women and mothers of newborns
in particular face greatly increased health risks.
There is also a
significantly increased risk of sexual assault, particularly for those
who relocated to shelters to escape the storm. Economic uncertainty,
increased stress, powerlessness and the scarcity of basic necessities
are all contributing factors to the increased risks faced by women.
In the aftermath of Katrina, women who were living in violent relationships
before the storm hit may experience increased violence in its aftermath
and may find themselves dependent on the perpetrators of the violence
for their basic survival, particularly if they have been separated from
family and social networks.
The breakdown of
law enforcement and social service agencies such as rape crisis centers
during and after the storm particularly exacerbated the problem. In
the days following Hurricane Katrina, major media providers such as
CNN and the Chicago Tribune were reporting that rapes were taking place
in the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center. Police Chief Eddie
Compass quickly made a statement saying, "We don't have any substantiated
rapes. We will investigate if any come forward." Compass' denial
that rapes had been reported quickly led some to question whether these
stories were merely media hype, perhaps motivated by racial prejudice.
The concern about
prejudicial, hysterical reporting is certainly understandable. There
is no question that the evacuation of New Orleans and the treatment
of the victims of Katrina raises some very serious issues of racial
and classist prejudices as evidenced by commentary such as R. Emmett
Tyrell Jr., writing in the September 9, 2005 edition of the Washington
"To see the
bulk of the victims as black is misleading. If a similar natural disaster
afflicted Appalachia, most victims would be white. More properly understood,
these victims are members of society's underclass, a chronically disorganized
collection of wretched people incapable of governing themselves and
difficult to govern in the best of times: thus the rape, the pillaging
and the shooting at rescue workers at the Superdome and probably elsewhere."
Prior to the hurricane,
70 percent of new Orleans' population was black and 25 percent of the
city's population was impoverished. In other words, by definition, those
are the people who for the most part were left behind in conditions
that rapidly became inhuman, fostering a situation where crimes could
easily be committed with little or no consequence. But just because
that was the case does not make it make it prejudicial to say that rapes
and sexual assaults took place.
Hysteria on the
part of the media also bears examination. After all, these are the self-same
news 'reporters' who routinely fall for the catch-phrase of the day
("weapons of mass destruction" and the "war on terror"
for example) spewed out by the Bush administration to foster fear, not
to mention the perpetrators of 24/7 coverage of the Runaway Bride and
Terry Shiavo stories.
But the insistence
that reports of rape were untrue because they hadn't been 'substantiated'
smacks of misogynist ignorance. In an article entitled, "The Bigotry
of Low Expectations", Matt Welch writes on Alternet that "The
only problem--none of the reports were true". He boldly asserts
that the rape reports were "invented out of whole cloth" and
that somehow such reports unfairly blamed the police department.
It is not really
surprising that Chief Compass did not know of any rape reports in as
much as government officials were ignorant for awhile that there were
even people taking refuge in the Convention Center. Most obviously (as
even Welch admits), the usual channels through which rapes are reported
(law enforcement agencies, rape crisis centers and medical facilities)
were unavailable. There were no functioning social service or law enforcement
agencies in the Superdome or Convention Center at the height of the
crisis and phone service was spotty at best. There was no way to report
these crimes or seek assistance.
However, As Judy
Benitez, Executive Director of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual
Assault (LaFASA) explains, "The idea that because something cannot
be measured, it does not exist, is ridiculous.". she also points
of frustrated, angry, powerless people in one place for a long time
is a toxic one. Some of them were drinking and using drugs, which exacerbates
the problem of violence. The intermingling of men and women, children,
elderly folks, people with disabilities, people with substance abuse
problems, people with mental illness, and people with criminal tendencies
was a deadly one. It is no secret that in our society, some people are
strong and some are weak. Some of the strong help those who are weaker
- and some prey on them. The animal-like circumstances of the evacuees
in the Superdome - conditions in which no human being should ever have
to live - caused frustration on a level that most people will never
know. That sense of helplessness, lack of control, and powerlessness
would make most people angry; for predatory people, the availability
of someone over whom they can have power and control, on whom they can
take out their anger,! is all the excuse they need to commit rape."
Under normal circumstances,
rape is a very under-reported crime due to its personal and frightening
nature, according to Benitez. Victims fear being blamed or just want
to pretend it didn't happen. It is also important to realize that, according
to the FBI, false reports of rape are roughly the same percentage as
false reports of other crimes (between 2-5%). When victims do come forward,
they are more likely to seek help at rape crisis centers than from law
But in the immediate
aftermath of the storm, LaFASA reported that six Louisiana crisis centers
had been shut down with many of their staff themselves displaced, leaving
sexual assault survivors without the services and support they can normally
depend on and the places where they are most likely to report sexual
serving sexual assault survivors in the area, the Louisiana Coalition
Against Domestic Violence (LCADV), reported that all direct services
to survivors of domestic violence had been suspended but that LCADV
was receiving reports of women being battered by their partners in emergency
shelters. According to Captain Jeffrey Winn of the New Orleans Police
SWAT team, policeman on the scene at the Convention Center told him
that a number of women had been gang-raped. Similar reports were also
made by emergency personnel and National Guard troops.
The reality is that
while the extent of the problem is not yet known, it is clear that rapes
did in fact take place. And as Sheila Dauer of Amnesty International
recently told Women's Enews, this is unacceptable because relief organizations
have an obligation to protect vulnerable populations from violence and
abuse. Placing evacuees in large shelters like the Superdome without
a significant law enforcement presence as well as lack of food and water
and adequate sanitation clearly contributed to the violation of the
human rights of those who sought shelter there; particularly those who
were most vulnerable.
the dangers of personal violence faced by women routinely and unnecessarily
puts them in harms way and denies them of basic human rights, the problems
of this misogynist policy lens are significantly magnified in times
of crisis. It is crucial that this issue be addressed in the investigations
and analysis of the contributing factors that exacerbated the damage
caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the
Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org.
Her work has been published in numerous publications in the U.S. and
abroad including, Awakened Woman, Alternet, Dissident Voice, Off Our
Backs, The Progressive, Rain and Thunder, Z Magazine , Common Dreams
and Information Clearinghouse.