Disaster might seem like an event that equalizes the difference, brings people together, and impacts everyone equally. But the reality is much less simplistic. Considering all different types of nuance, one may understand that it impacts everyone differently. If we take the bigger picture, the underprivileged are more prone to the destruction caused by any natural disaster than the privileged ones.
Some people may have better access to resources to move away from areas facing natural disasters, leaving behind a population that is disproportionately poor and has high chances to get affected or spread the effect.
Disasters have different effects for men and women, reflecting gender inequalities—caused by socioeconomic conditions, cultural beliefs, and traditional practices that have repeatedly put women at a disadvantage. Mortality rates from disaster occurrences are exponentially higher for women than for men (World Bank). Some studies find that women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die when a disaster strikes (World Bank).
The higher mortality rate in women is also accompanied by post-disaster distress (World Bank). An incident in Momita’s* life is a reflection of the same. Momita and her husband run a shop near a corporate hub with her two kids. She is the eldest child of the family and her family depends on factory labor work for their major income. They were living a decent life with all basic living amenities but an unfortunate natural disaster hit their life in the most unfortunate way that her whole life got changed.
In the year of 2017, the Flood in West Bengal dismantled her entire house and every possible resource to live. It affected the whole community in a way that they were forced to settle themselves in the disaster relief camps.
During the stay, her father was approached by a man who lives in the city and runs a tea stall with the intention of a marriage proposal. The father without thinking twice agreed to it because he did not consider it safe for his daughter to stay in a camp.
She got married at the age of 16 and now she has two kids and is staying at a roadside tea stall, facing domestic violence on a regular basis on the pretext that she is having a sexual relationship with her brother. With no other place to fall back to, she had no option other than staying with her abusive husband. Their children also had to witness the oppressive scenario of domestic violence which will prove detrimental to their emotional well-being. The lack of agency owing to her subordinate position as a woman and her vulnerability left her in a position prone to post-disaster violence.
In general women and children are more vulnerable because of the societal structure and with being in additional damage they get affected biologically, psychologically and economically to an extent which is much higher than the men (World Bank). Taking a gender blind approach can obscure the gender-specific needs of women like sanitation, water accessibility, menstruation, taking care of the ill, and the impacts during and after the disaster (World Bank). Impacts are also of various kinds- what appears at the surface is more material and damage but there are other psychological demands and damages which seldom get attention (World Bank).
Gender relations govern who is catering to what kind of need during and after disaster too. In an event like a flood where the affected population faces a sheer dearth of drinking water and water for sanitation purposes. Women, adolescent girls, mothers, pregnant women, etc. are especially more vulnerable and less resilient because of the pre-existing power structures of the society.
The absence of specific relief measures for pregnant displaced women from the disaster relief programs shows the negligence and a dire requirement of inclusion for gender aspects in disaster research.
*Name has been changed to protect the person’s privacy.
- “Enhancing gender-responsive disaster risk management: Why a change of mindset is the first step.” World Bank Blog, January 2020, https://blogs.worldbank.org/africacan/enhancing-gender-responsive-disaster-risk-management-why-change-mindset-first-step.