When disaster strikes, social norms can put women in greater peril
Disaster sociologist Elain Enarson once said that disasters occur in a world shaped by gender. In this gendered world, civilisations, societies, and economies have accorded women a secondary status, encouraged violence against women – albeit often subtly or behind closed doors – and prevented women from seeking justice. The patriarchal social structures that define much of the world’s societies and institutions have given men extraordinary power, from making decisions inside the home to shaping the dynamics of relief aid.
This power imbalance often leaves women vulnerable to, among other things, discrimination, sex-selective abortions, domestic abuse, dowry crimes, honour killings, forced labour and prostitution. As Bani Saraswati, an NGO leader from east India, points out, “Women are not born vulnerable; they are made vulnerable by biased social settings”. This is particularly true in developing countries in South Asia where females are not given equal access to education, healthcare, or employment opportunities. So how can a society that fails to give women and girls equal recognition offer them safety, protection, and opportunities for growth, especially in times of disaster?
Disaster survival rates are largely dependent on pre-existing gendered norms – such as those that define female modesty, including the type of dress women are expected to wear and women’s freedom of mobility, which can make escaping harm more difficult. Other norms play a role in the low literacy levels of women in the household, which can make it difficult for them to get important warnings or announcements. And the jobs women are expected to take on, which are commonly inside the home, put them at greater risk of getting trapped during disasters. Given all this, it is no surprise that women and girls are more affected by natural hazards.
With the changing climate, the frequency of natural disasters in South Asia is on the rise. These catastrophic events have had a disproportionate impact on women’s income, food security, physical security, and health, especially in their aftermath. A 2007 report from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) on gender and disaster risk reduction includes an interview with a Pakistani woman who gave birth at a disaster relief camp where her family sought refuge after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. This woman’s account illustrates the type of treatment that women often endure in post-disaster situations: “I delivered a baby in this tent. I couldn’t even go to the dispensary within our camp due to the shame my husband felt about me delivering his baby. He said I mustn’t raise my voice while delivering so that no one around our tent would hear my cries due to the labour pains. I had to bear all the pains quietly without any help, no lady doctor, no medicine. My baby is still at high risk of a fatal sickness while living in this tent in the severe cold.”
In addition, Interpol has warned that human trafficking risks for women are on the rise as a result of increasing climate disasters that displace families and disrupt livelihoods. Data from Maiti Nepal, an organization dedicated to helping victims of sex trafficking, suggests that human trafficking increases by 20 to 30 per cent during disasters.
However, the social and gender inequalities that make women and girls more vulnerable cannot corrode their resilience and spirit of survival. Despite data that show more deaths and greater suffering among women and girls in nearly every natural disaster, witnesses of these devastating events tell countless tales of women’s resilience, their remarkable will to survive, and the leadership role they take in caring for their families and helping their communities return to normalcy. After disasters, while household heads (generally men) collect relief supplies and search for jobs, women become responsible for ensuring the nutrition, health, water, cleanliness, and security of their families. All of these tasks become more grueling and protracted following disasters.
Men, of course, also play a role in recovery, but the undisputed fact is that women and girls have to overcome far more challenges and are under greater scrutiny for their actions in the event of a catastrophe. Although their services and contributions to society are often taken for granted, they are criticized or condemned if they compromise on the societal ethos in the process of self and family survival.
Even disaster management policies and practices have yet to adequately recognize gender-specific needs and vulnerabilities. They have also failed to capitalize on women’s unique capacities in risk reduction and disaster recovery. This should be no surprise since the tools used by many organizations for vulnerability assessment and intervention have been developed based on men’s way of looking at disasters. And even though many agencies recognize that when women’s lives improve, the situation of their entire families and communities often follows suit, impacts on the ground remain insignificant.
For example, before the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Noor Jahan, a home-based entrepreneur in Tamil Nadu state in India, had built a handmade fan business that spread to large markets in Delhi and Mumbai. She told Oxfam International researcher Chaman Pincha that even three years after the tsunami washed away the raw materials, tools, and cash from her business, she had received no help from the government, financial institutions, or NGOs in rebuilding her home-based industry. In contrast, within one year of the devastating event, men who had lost their fishing boats – and even those who had never had one before – were given assistance for their livelihood activities.
More long-term approaches are needed to recognize the unique livelihoods of women and incorporate gender-rooted social concerns into disaster risk reduction processes so that women are empowered. Women survivors are vital first responders and rebuilders after disaster, not passive victims. Mothers, grandmothers, and other women are fundamental to the survival of their families, and disaster management practices must identify and assess sex-specific needs and tap into women’s knowledge of environmental resources and community complexities.
Nibanupudi is a Disaster Risk Reduction Specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). He can be contacted at [email protected]