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On Mother’s Day, Protect Women’s Rights in Disaster Zones

How Are the US, Puerto Rico Preparing for Hurricane Season?

A pregnant woman carries empty plastic bottles to collect water a day after the impact of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, Thursday, September 21, 2017. © 2019 AP Photo/Carlos Giusti

Today is my first Mother’s Day as a new mum in the United States. Today I am also flying to Puerto Rico, to better understand how Hurricane Maria impacted pregnant women and women with newborns when the massive storm hit in September 2017.

My 9-month-old daughter, Eve, is coming with me to the Caribbean island.

The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1. Scientists found that a storm of Maria’s rain magnitude is nearly five times more likely to occur again than in 1950, largely as a result of climate change.

In Puerto Rico, I want to find out what preparations are in place to protect people, including expectant and new mothers, from such deadly storms.

This is my first trip to research a government’s response to extreme weather events, but I hope to travel soon to other parts of the US (Puerto Rico is a US territory) to look at similar issues. Floods, hurricanes, and wildfires that cause misery, death, and displacement, are set to become more frequent and more severe. Climate change will meet people where they are. If pregnant women or new mothers live in marginalized communities and experience gender discrimination already in daily life, extreme weather events and poorly designed government responses may well exacerbate those abuses.

This is new work for me. Over the last years, I have interviewed many women and girls who fled conflicts and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, South Sudan, and Burundi, mostly to understand the crimes women face during atrocities, like rape by armed men. We know that women and girls are impacted differently by massive loss and displacement, that policies and funding need to be in place to address specific needs – like for contraception – that are often forgotten. Such policies need to be constantly adapted for a world increasingly in crisis.

This Mother’s Day I want to begin to understand why the basic needs of women on this Caribbean island – women who hold US passports – were not being adequately met on the worst days of their lives. I want to see what community-based groups are fighting for.

Climate change is here, and Eve will likely feel and see impacts all her life. But the work of reckoning with how we will face its impact on those most affected is only beginning.

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