Women and Disasters

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A disaster is an occurrence such as a hurricane, tornado, flood, earthquake, explosion, hazardous materials accident, war, transportation accident, mass shooting, fire, famine, or epidemic that causes human suffering or creates human need that the victim cannot alleviate without assistance. [FEMA]

Disasters are categorized in two ways: “natural” disasters, a term that traditionally refers to earthquakes, cyclones, volcanic eruptions, floods, landslides, and “man-made” disasters, which include wars, riots, industrial and biological accidents, droughts, famines, and epidemics.

A disaster management cycle typically includes disaster mitigation and prevention, emergency, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Developing countries account for 95 percent of all deaths caused by natural disasters and suffer losses that are 20 times greater (as a percent of gross domestic product) than those of industrial countries experiencing similar events (World Bank Group 2005).

Women and disasters

It is widely known and accepted that disasters affect women and men differently. The United Nations Handbook for Estimating the Socioeconomic and Environmental Effects of Disaster (2003) emphasizes that one consequence of disaster “is the decapitalization of women and the reduction of their share of productive activities in the formal and informal sectors.” Women are disadvantaged in two ways:

"Not only do they sustain direct damages or production losses (housing and means of production), but they also . . . lose income when they have to apply themselves temporarily to unpaid emergency tasks and an increased amount of unpaid reproductive work, such as caring for their children when schools are closed . . . Such reproductive work is usually granted a lower status than paid work . . . . It is also a continuous job . . . which limits women’s mobility and can sometimes even prevent them from exercising their rights as citizens."

WHO research says that women and children are particularly affected by disasters, accounting for more than seventy five percent of displaced persons. In addition to the general effects of natural disaster and lack of health care, women are vulnerable to reproductive and sexual health problems, and increased rates of sexual and domestic violence. Moreover, gender roles dictate that women become the primary caretakers for those affected by disasters – including children, the injured and sick, and the elderly – substantially increasing their emotional and material work load. Women’s vulnerability is further increased by the loss of men and/or livelihoods, especially when a male head of household has died and the women must provide for their families. Post disaster stress symptoms are often but not universally reported more frequently by women than men.

In addition, gender inequality in social, economic and political spheres results in vast differences between men and women in emergency communication; household decisions about use of relief assets; voluntary relief and recovery work; access to evacuation shelter and relief goods; and employment in disaster planning, relief and recovery programs, among other areas of concern in disaster relief.

According to Enarson, (Enarson, Elaine; 2000; “Gender and Natural Disasters” Employment Working Paper 1; ILO)

"Women’s work is heavily impacted by disasters, and their economic losses can be extensive. Domestic work increases enormously when support systems such as child care, schools, clinics, public transportation and family networks are disrupted or destroyed. Damaged living spaces are damaged working spaces for all women. For those whose income is based on homework, the loss of housing often means the loss of workspace, tools, equipment, inventory, supplies and markets. [In addition,] domestic violence appears to increase when men’s sense of control is diminished in disasters."

Women and post disaster situations

Post-disaster interventions like relief and subsequent recovery efforts fail to pay adequate attention to the gender-specific impacts of disasters. Although disaster management efforts are designed to benefit men and women, men usually tend to receive larger share of benefits while women continue to remain marginalised. Studies on disaster management suggest that the concept of empowerment of women can be integrated as a management philosophy to overcome this problem.

Ayse Yonder, Sengul Akcar and Prema Gopalan, in their paper “Women’s Participation in Disaster Relief and Recovery” write,

“Disasters increase women’s household and care-giving work dramatically for an extended period of time as housing and social infrastructure once destroyed is slowly replaced. They require women to manage displaced households and restore family livelihoods. Yet post-disaster aid efforts generally ignore this reality and target male-headed households as the primary claimants for government and other support. Not only does this approach to aid ignore women’s joint claim on family assets, it also ignores the needs of women living apart from male-headed households and is largely indifferent to the income-generating roles that women do and must play. These biases substantially undermine prospects for household and community recovery. Gender-sensitive programming is essential during emergency relief. The central aim of disaster relief is to support and rebuild communities; what women do to keep their families and communities together in the critical moments after disaster occurs often is taken for granted. Protocols must be developed that value women’s priorities and contributions appropriately.”

According to WHO, women are portrayed as the victims of disaster, and their central role in response to disaster is often overlooked. A woman’s pre-disaster familial responsibilities are magnified and expanded by the onset of a disaster or emergency, with significantly less support and resources. Women play a central role within the family, securing relief from emergency authorities, meeting the immediate survival needs of family members and managing temporary relocation.

Some facts and statistics

Neumayer and Plümper analyzed disasters in 141 countries and found that, when it came to deaths, gender differences were directly linked to women’s economic and social rights; in societies where women and men enjoyed equal rights, disasters caused the same number of deaths in both sexes. They also confirmed that discrepancies were the result of existing inequalities. For example, boys were given preferential treatment during rescue efforts and, following disasters, both women and girls suffered more from shortages of food and economic resources (Neumayer and Plümper, 2007).

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.

In industrialized countries, more women than men died during the heat wave that affected Europe in 2003. In France most deaths were among elderly women.

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 knowing how to swim and climb trees 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.

Following a disaster, it is more likely that women will be victims of domestic and sexual violence; they even avoid using shelters for fear of being sexually assaulted.

Nutritional condition determines the capacity to deal with disasters. Women are more likely to suffer from malnutrition because they have specific nutritional needs when they are pregnant or breast feeding, and some cultures have food hierarchies. For example, in south and south-east Asia, 45–60% of women of reproductive age are below their normal weight and 80% of pregnant women have iron deficiencies. In sub-Saharan Africa women lift much heavier loads than men but consume fewer calories because the culture rules that men receive more food.

In some cases, gender differences also increase men’s mortality in disaster situations. Many men are exposed to risky situations and even die because they believe that by being the “stronger sex” they need not take precautions and because society expects them to take heroic rescue action. For example, there were more immediate deaths among men when hurricane Mitch struck Central America, not only because they were engaged in open-air activities, but because they took fewer precautions when facing risks.

In Kenya, fetching water may use up to 85% of a woman’s daily energy intake; in times of drought a greater work load is placed on women’s shoulders, some spend up to eight hours a day in search of water.

Extreme weather events often create conditions conducive to outbreaks of infectious diseases; heavy rains produce insect breeding grounds, and contaminate clean water sources while drought on the other hand can cause fungal spores and spark fires. Women, especially expectant mothers, are highly vulnerable to water-borne diseases, thermal and other extreme events.

In refugee camps that arise as a result of natural disasters and conflicts over scarce resources, women and the girl child refugees are exposed to higher risks compared to male refugees. Social strains in such situations aggravate stress levels in the family, which may result in incidences of domestic violence.

Source: IUCN Fact Sheet

Beijing Agenda for Global Action on Gender-Sensitive Disaster Risk Reduction

The Beijing Agenda for Global Action on Gender-Sensitive Disaster Risk Reduction adopted at the International Conference on Gender and Disaster Risk Reduction, (April 20 to 22, 2009) held in Beijing recommends “nine achievable actions” before 2015.

1. Increase political commitment to gender analysis and gender mainstreaming through enhanced cooperation and collaboration between Ministries responsible for disaster risk reduction, climate change, poverty reduction and gender issues, with the participation of civil society;

2. Develop and review national policies, relevant laws, strategies, plans and budgets and take immediate action to mainstream gender into national development policies, planning and programmes;

3. Foster the linkage between disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation from a gender perspective through policy and administrative measures;

4. Collect gender-specific data and statistics on impact of disasters, carry out gender-sensitive vulnerability, risk and capacity assessments and develop gender sensitive-indicators to monitor and measure progress;

5. Increase awareness of the public and media on the gender-sensitive vulnerabilities and capacities in disasters and gender-specific needs and concerns in disaster risk reduction and management;

6. Support research institutions to study the cost-benefit and efficiency of gender-sensitive policies and programmes in disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and poverty reduction;

7. Secure the actual application of disaster risk assessments as part of development policy-making and programme formulation to prevent disasters from making the poor even poorer;

8. Improve and mainstream a gender perspective and equal participation between men and women in the coordination of disaster preparedness humanitarian response and recovery through capacity building and training; and

9. Build and enhance the capacities of professional organizations, communities and pertinent national and local institutions to enable gender mainstreaming into all development sectors.

Other sources

See also

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