Gender inequality is a recipe for disaster

Natural disasters are exactly that — they’re disasters.

Whether it be an earthquake, a flood, a hurricane, a fire or a tsunami, consequences will be widely felt. However, it’s not just proximity to the disaster zone that determines who is worst affected. Wherever they hit, a number of factors determine that some will be less affected while others pay a high price. One of the key factors that determines how people are affected by disasters, such as the Nepal earthquakes earlier this year, is gender.

We know women experience discrimination, poverty, violence and inequality every day and in every country. Women are even more vulnerable to these things during and after the chaos of a natural disaster as are other marginalised groups including people with disabilities and LGBTIQ+ populations.

Do you remember seeing the footage on the news as the first of two earthquakes hit the beautiful Himalayan country of Nepal on April 25? It was devastating. The death toll quickly climbed towards 9000 people, with women making up 55% of the victims. Millions of people were caught up in the disaster zone, but not everyone experienced the effects of the earthquake in the same way.

As a founding member of a women-focused organisation, we are only too aware of the lethal combination of factors that mean women are disproportionately affected by natural disasters. A study by Neumayer and Plümper of 141 natural disasters found that women, girls and boys die at up to 14 times the rate of men, making this one of the most deadly gender gaps of all. During the cyclone disasters in Bangladesh in 1991, of the 140,000 people who died, a staggering 90% were reported to be women.

Why the deadly gap?

Unfortunately, there’s not just one reason — that would make a solution too easy to find. Rather, a deadly mix of biological differences, traditional gender roles, discrimination and subsequent poor crisis responses exacerbate inequalities that already exist. Not only that, they create new ones. This results in the disproportionate impact of natural disasters on women and other marginalised groups in both developed and developing countries.

Generally speaking, here’s how:

  • In situations where food is scarce, women are often expected to serve men and boys first, which can pose nutritional risks for women and girls.
  • Women are more susceptible to injury or death than men, particularly during an earthquake, because traditional gender roles mean they’re often at home and indoors when it hits.
  • A lack of access to hygiene products following disaster often means that infections run rampant. Women can menstruate for days on end with no change of clothes and no clean water. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are particularly prone to infection and complications. This is compounded by socio-cultural limitations that prevent women from seeking information and treatment of these issues or discussing them publicly.
  • Lack proper sanitation and toilets following the collapse of houses often force people to urinate and defecate outside. This puts women and girls at risk of physical and sexual assault and attacks from animals, which in turn often means that they hold their urination creating all sorts of other health problems such as urinary tract infections.
  • Women and mothers are often responsible for keeping families together and taking care of the elderly, children, the sick and injured. During times of crisis, their caring responsibilities skyrocket in line with the needs of those they care for. Yet, they have less resources and support than normal to carry out these roles.
  • Women are mostly employed within the agricultural and informal sectors, which are often the worst affected by disasters. Therefore, loss of livelihoods and income as well as unemployment among women after a disaster is often very high.
  • Women’s limited access to assets, economic opportunities and education means that many women, especially in remote areas, cannot access resources and services for recovery.

This is not even an exhaustive list but it makes for a depressing read.

What can be done to reduce disaster’s deadly impact on women?

As international development practitioners and aid workers, we need to continue to make sure women’s needs are not overlooked in the post-disaster environment by mitigating risks posed by lack of access to clean water, healthcare, shelter and infrastructure.

Following the Nepal earthquakes, our team at The Global Women’s Project ran an emergency response that focused on women’s unique needs. For example, we distributed 40,000 sanitary products. However, conducting a gendered response to a natural disaster is far more nuanced than simply providing sanitary products. We also need to continue to break down gender stereotypes in everyday life, as a preventative mechanism, to ensure that if or when disaster hits that women don’t experience a ‘double disaster’.

The chaos of a natural disaster also creates a bit of a paradox: while it’s clear that women are immensely vulnerable, they are also incredibly resilient and are often first responders when disaster strikes. Women’s voices must be represented in disaster management and rebuilding efforts at a grassroots level as well as in decision-making at a leadership level to ensure that their specific needs are adequately prepared for and responded to.

When we only talk about women’s unique vulnerabilities after disaster, we run the risk of perpetuating oppression or reinforcing existing gender stereotypes about women needing ‘saving’ or ‘protection’. That’s why it is vitally important for us to talk just as much, if not more, about women as ‘agents of change’ and focus on their capabilities in rebuilding their community post-disaster.

Knowing how and why gender is implicated in times of disaster will increase the effectiveness of our planning, preparedness, our response and our recovery efforts. Understanding this will save lives.

The Global Women’s Project has provided assistance and support to over 65,000 people in the aftermath of the Nepal quakes.


Originally published at www.womensagenda.com.au.

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