When Disaster Strikes Women
chillibreeze writer — Rekha Srinivasan
Disaster works like a magnifying glass; it magnifies the ugly face of marginalization that certain sections of the society are subjected to. It is quite a well known now that ‘real’ disaster is often not the natural hazard itself, but the increased vulnerability and helplessness of the poor, women, children, elderly and the disabled, following the natural hazard.
As substantiated by the Environmental and the Mitigation of Natural Disasters: A Gender Perspective report, "Social vulnerability to disasters is a function of human action and behaviour. It describes the degree to which a socio-economic system or physical assets are either susceptible or resilient to the impact of natural and environmental changes." Women bear the brunt of any disaster because the gender-based inequalities interact with social class, race, ethnicity, and age, putting them at high risk.
The impact of a natural disaster on women has a direct correlation with the position women held prior to the event. It has been recorded that the older women, women with disabilities and pregnant and nursing women, and those with small children are often most at risk. During disaster, they are left behind or left out or the last to leave in cases of emergency because they lack knowledge, mobility and resources.
Studies show that women, boys and girls are 14 times more likely than men to die during a disaster. In 1991, during the cyclone disasters in Bangladesh, of the 140,000 people who died, 90% were women. Even if we look at industrialized countries, more women than men died during the heat wave that affected Europe. During the emergency caused by hurricane Katrina in the United States, most of the victims trapped in New Orleans were Afro-American women with their children, the poorest demographic group in that part of the country. In Sri Lanka, it was easier for men to survive during the tsunami because they knew how to swim and climb trees, which is mainly taught to boys. This social prejudice means that girls and women in Sri Lanka have very few possibilities of surviving in future disasters.
Impact of disaster on women:
Hindered access to relief measures:
Post disaster consequences:
Loss of livelihood: When disasters damage or destroy local environment, women lose their entire living and working space, and additionally, their capital equipment. At the same time, lower literacy levels and very low levels of ownership of land and other productive assets may leave women on the verge of destitution. They have less access to reconstructing jobs, credits and facilities. A study reported instances of women in Bangladesh becoming destitute following a disaster, as male relatives confiscated family land from the woman in the event of her husband’s and son’s deaths, leaving them poverty stricken and destitute. There were no legal provisions to protect women and their families against such problems.
Triple burden of work: Women may find themselves burdened with even greater responsibilities than before. Post disaster, a “flight of men” often occurs, leaving women as sole earners. It has been reported that men abandoned women and families, and used relief aid for themselves. On the other hand, women are less mobile due to their caring responsibilities. Migration may lead to demographic changes in a population and a higher share of female-headed households with limited provision of adult labour, and higher responsibilities for family managing, community organizing and income-making issues. Women and children are particularly affected by disasters, accounting for more than seventy five percent of displaced persons.
Lack of women-specific health care: In addition to the general effects of natural disaster and lack of health care, women are vulnerable to reproductive and sexual health problems. Studies have also reported adverse reproductive outcomes following disasters, including early pregnancy loss, premature delivery, stillbirths, delivery-related complications and infertility. It has been reported that in India, 24% of pregnant women exposed to isocyanides during the 1984 Bhopal explosion had spontaneous abortions. During the 1998 floods in Bangladesh, adolescent girls reported perineal rashes and urinary tract infections because they were not able to wash out menstrual rags properly in private, often had no place to hang the rags to dry, or access to clean water. They reported wearing damp cloths, as they did not have a place to dry them.
Women’s role in reconstruction: Women are portrayed as the victims of disaster, and their central role in response to disaster, relief work and post disaster reconstruction is often overlooked. Forecasting information networks or early warning systems oriented towards males often don’t take into account women’s possibilities and channels to get information. Due to their limited access to information, women are less able to minimize risks. But women are key to the prevention of disasters—their local knowledge is useful during and after disasters, they have survival and coping skills in emergencies, including food preservation; their physical and mental health care skills need to be harnessed during relief operations.
There is an urgent need for sex-disaggregated data on disaster-related mortality, morbidity and long-term health consequences. At the local level, there is a need for documentation on perceptions, preparedness and warning response. Women also need to be familiarized with coping mechanisms and disaster relief. One also needs to know how gender relations operate in households and communities. Special-risk populations for disaster relief and recovery services should be identified. Basic health services provided as part of emergency relief should likewise cater to women’s and men’s different needs, and be provided in a gender-sensitive manner. Women should be included in pre-disaster activities such as hazard mapping and vulnerability analysis. At a minimum, this would involve taking into account the differences in vulnerability to and the impact of disasters on women and men, and how their roles and status affect disaster-relief and recovery. As a prerequisite, gender training of emergency managers and health service providers should become an integral part of staff training in all organizations and agencies involved in disaster-relief.
One can recall the efforts of Shikshsan Prayog [SSP], which helped rural women during the devastating 1993 earthquake in Latur. Despite their exclusion from repairing, planning, and designing their homes and communities, some 500 women’s groups united through mahila mandals for training and information about reconstruction. Community collectives can be tools to propel activities related to risk management activities and to rebuild livelihoods. There are many examples to demonstrate this.
The Self-Employed Women’s Association [SEWA], provides disaster insurance to poor women through women’s banks as well as training in seismically-resistant construction. Local SEWA chapters helped governmental authorities direct relief supplies and provided resources to help women begin to earn again, while still in tents, following the 2001 Gujarat quake.
Diversifying livelihoods by taking assistance from SHGs is not new to women; such networks should be revived post disaster and a visioning for both short-term and long-term activities in the background of the disaster should be taken up. To conclude, we need to acknowledge that though disaster strikes both men and women alike, the impact it has on women is different and greater. This fact needs to be acknowledged and the importance of their roles at various levels, has to be considered, when formulating and implementing disaster management strategies.
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Chillibreeze's disclaimer: This is a contributed article and was published on Chillibreeze in September, 2010. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of Chillibreeze as a company. Chillibreeze has a strict anti-plagiarism policy. Please contact us to report any copyright issues related to this article. The relevance of the facts and figures cited (if any) could change after a period of time.
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