Published in The Big Issue on 17 October 2005
Following the New Orleans disaster, reports of widespread rape emerged from the city. They have since been denied by police but confirmed by crisis centres. Is this an attempt to save New Orleans’ image or the establishment covering its tracks? Rachel Bell reports
The media has downplayed reports of rape in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina. The crisis will be remembered as a race and class issue, as Bush’s failure to respond to the cry for help from poor Black America. In the flood of coverage on the late rescue effort, Bush’s public image and debates over whether America is as racist and classist as it ever was, the horrific rapes of children and women have been swallowed up. This is symbiotic of the disturbing fact that in a disaster in which women were hit the hardest – the majority of the victims are poor and black, yes but most of them are poor, black women – the issue of gender has not been addressed.
The UK media reported eyewitness accounts of rapes. These were contradicted by others who claimed the stories of rape were exaggerated. Jennifer Drew of Truth About Rape says, “Rapes did occur in New Orleans.” Certainly to accept that rape only exists where there is a conviction shows gross ignorance of the crime. And it is a crime against the survivors of rape that it is not being talked about, that no-one is railing against the horrors these girls and women suffered, or addressing male violence. Rape is a crime against the community as well as individuals.
In the days following Hurricane Katrina, CNN, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune were reporting the rapes were taking place in the Superdome and the Convention Center. On September 2, New Orleans singer Charmaine Neville publicly announced that she was raped and reported to New Orleans police that “a lot of us women had been raped down there.” Imagine if that was Kylie Minogue talking? The rapes would be headline news over here and the issue still very much alive. More than three weeks after the hurricane hit, Police at major evacuation sites such as the Houston Astrodome were instructed to start accepting rape reports from women displaced from Louisiana. Reports by people who said they witnessed the rapes filtered through to rape counsellors. Judy Benitez, Executive Director of The Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault (La FASA) told Women’s e news, “The reports are being taken by witnesses as well as victims. Under normal circumstances, the odds of rapes getting reported to the police were between 10 and 25% of all rapes. Amid the unfathomable chaos of Hurricane Katrina, we expect an even lower rate.”
The lack of real discourse on the New Orleans rapes speaks volumes about the wholescale failure to recognise its gendered dimension. In her article, Natural Disasters Expose Gender Divides, published in the Chicago Tribune on September 14, Joni Seager says, “The lack of curiosity about the rapes in the midst of the New Orleans disaster is just one aspect of this wilful ignorance that is particularly disturbing. Rapes have been mentioned in several news stories, but always in passing and with no follow-through, no interviews with police officials about the magnitude of rape, no curiosity about the nature of masculinity that contemplates rape even in conditions of extreme human suffering, no disaster experts assuring us that rape-support teams are included in the rescue teams, no discussion about the medical and Psychological resources that women who have survived unimaginable tragedy and stress and have also been raped will need.”
Women and children were vulnerable to rape because they are poor. Along with children, the sick, elderly, disabled and poor, women are the most vulnerable groups in times of crisis and chaos. Women, of every colour, are the poorest people on the planet. In her recent article, Were Women Raped In New Orleans?, American writer and activist Lucinda Marshall, writes: “Women and children are more likely to die in natural disasters than men. 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. There is also significantly increased risk of sexual assault, particularly for those who relocated to shelters to escape the storm.”
The rapes have been downplayed by the media because there were no official statistics. Chief Compass first told the press the rapes were ‘insubstantiated’ yet later press interviews indicate that he was aware that rapes had taken place. Marshall says, ” The insistence that the reports of rape were untrue because they were ‘insubstantiated’ smacks of misogynist ignorance. 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.”
Under normal circumstances, rape is a very underreported crime. Women are reluctant to come forward. No wonder. Rape is degrading, and terrifying, it comes with a social stigma. Survivors want to forget. Gender discrimination in court and low conviction rates are no incentive to go through with another ordeal. As a result, as Marshall points out, rape victims are more likely to contact Rape Crisis centres and women’s shelters, where they can get sympathetic, experienced, confidential help, rather than at law enforcement agencies. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Marshall writes, “La FASA reported that six Louisiana Crisis Centers had been shut down, with many of their staff 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 victimisation 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 services were spotty at best. There was no way to report these crimes or seek assistance.”
With no law enforcement agencies, medical centres or rape crisis centres functioning, gathering statistics is impossible. Without statistics, human rights atrocities become ‘insubstantiated’ and women’s horrific ordeals that will leave them scarred forever are minimised as ‘rumours’. As Judy Benitez, Executive Director of La FASA explained to Marshall, “The idea that because something cannot be measured, it does not exist, is ridiculous.”
In big New Orleans speech, Bush made much of the “deep, persistent poverty” saying, “That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination.” He made no mention of the rapes or gender discrimination. He said “let us rise above the legacy of inequality.” Racial and class inequality is the only legacy of New Orleans. Gender inequality will remain invisible.
To deny the issue of gender is to deny the poor women and their children who make up a huge part of the US and are in crisis, with or without a hurricane. Feminists and women’s rights organisations still have to campaign against the public invisibility of women, particularly those of racial minorities. According to Joni Seager, “the New Orleans case study provides a dramatic example of the ‘unremarkability’ of racialized minority women in the gaze of a predominantly male and white media.”
Bush’s speech voiced concerns about the ‘danger to our citizens’. He threw in his catchy phrases, ‘terror threats’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’, and entirely failed to recognise the homegrown danger to female citizens from male violence. In this story of how rich, white America failed to help poor black America quick enough, the voices of the young girls and women who were raped in New Orleans have been drowned out.