Disaster and Gender

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. 

Women trying to pass the logged flood water. (Picture Credit: womensenews.org).

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.

Reference:

  1. “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.

Sahana is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Voluntary Integration for Education and Welfare of Society (VIEWS) in Gopalpur, Odisha. For her Fellowship project, she is supporting women self-help groups in launching social enterprises focused on organic farming practices to popularize the use of organic versus chemical fertilizers in the region. Sahana is a 23-year-old woman passionate to work towards gender equality. She has completed her Master’s degree in the discipline of social work with a specialization in rural development, mental health, disability, and counselling. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in political science. She has interned with Roshini, working with government school adolescent girls on life skills and creating a module on cyber security. She has also worked for the community in a slum in Delhi called Seelampur on different issues including gender, livelihood, education, and disability as part of her social work degree course. She was a part of the Youth Accountability Advocate (YAA), working towards understanding the needs of young people on sexual and reproductive health and rights. As a YAA member, she has been selected by the ‘Women Delivers’ in 2019 to share her experience and learnings in their international conference in Vancouver, Canada, with more than 8000 participants from all over the world. Sahana has been actively volunteering for an organisation called Pehchan for girls education in the peripheries of New Delhi. With AIF Clinton Fellowship, Sahana aspires to gain in-depth knowledge of the diversity in socio-economic, cultural, and educational fabric of India. She aims to hone her skills and build perspectives of working and solution generation in development sector.

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