That the impacts of disasters discriminate against certain segments of the population is a topic that has received insufficient attention by both governments and non-governmental agencies involved in relief and reconstruction efforts.
Disasters must be understood within the social, cultural and political contexts in which they occur because the risks and vulnerabilities that individuals face amid disaster are as much a product of their social context as their physical environment. For millions worldwide, it is their vulnerability, determined by a number of social factors such as gender, ethnicity, class, age, and disability, that contribute to disproportionate impact and ultimately whether they survive.
Studies have shown that disasters - whether natural (e.g., earthquakes, floods, drought, desertification, and epidemics?), technological (e.g. fuel, chemical and nuclear accidents), or intentional (e.g., civil war and armed conflicts), result in a range of harms that are gendered, and often those who are most devastated are women and children.
Women constitute the overwhelming proportion of refugee and internally displaced communities.
By the end of 2010 women and girls made up 47% of refugees and asylum seekers. They constituted half of all IDP's and returnees (former refugees).
Risks that women face arise from:
These gendered vulnerabilities are essentially consequences of pre-existing structures and social conditions -- the burdens of gender roles, unequal distribution of power, and devaluation of women and girls, all of which existed during "normal times," but are exacerbated during times of disaster.
In Cambodia, flood-related information and early warning signals - typically communicated through sources such as village authorities through village public address system, radio or television, people visiting or returning to the village from up-stream or near the Mekong River, or other villagers often failed to reach women. CARE International research team determined that, due to the gendered division of labor, 'a number of women said that they often did not hear public address announcements, either because their house was too far away or sheltered from the loudspeakers or that the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, or that they were too busy in the house or out in the fields at the time of announcement… Many women said that even when the radio was on they were usually too busy with domestic tasks to listen, and when the news programs were on they found it difficult to fully concentrate. Many women seemed to use television more as a means to keep children occupied while the carried on with other activities. A number of women said that they had difficulties understanding some of the language used in radio or television news broadcasts.'
Studies in Bangladesh show that women suffered most following the 1991 cyclone and flood. Among women aged 20-44, the death rate was 71 per 1000, compared to 15 per 1000 for men… In a highly sex segregated society, warning information was transmitted by males to males in public spaces where males congregated on the assumption that this would be communicated to the rest of the family - which by and large did not occur. Those who heard the warning ignored it because cyclones occurring after the 1970 disaster had not caused much devastation. In the ensuing procrastination, women who had comparatively less knowledge about cyclones and were dependent on male decision-making, perished, many with their children, waiting for their husbands to return home and take them to safety.
After a strong El Niño event, it was discovered that in one Peruvian fishing village, warnings went just to those perceived to be directly affected - the fishermen (all male) - so they knew in advance that the fishing would be poor to non-existent for the next several months. However, this information was not conveyed to the women whose responsibility it was to manage household budgets. With this information women could have budgeted differently and prevented disaster-induced hardship.
Loss of husbands and/or parents, decimation of economic livelihoods (agricultural and informal sectors where women dominate are often the worst hit and least able to recover from the effects of disasters), and dramatically expanded care-giving duties following disaster leave women burdened with even greater responsibilities in exceptionally difficult conditions and inadequate facilities. Post-disaster 'flight of men' is well documented, but migration in is rarely an option for women due to their domestic responsibilities. As a result, the number of female-headed households significantly increases after the occurrence of disasters leaving women alone with an increased burden of productive and reproductive roles, economic and domestic tasks. Amongst others, this has been observed in rural Bangladesh where numerous men abandoned their wives and families in the post-disaster period. As a result, women are vulnerable to impoverishment, forced marriage, labor exploitation and trafficking.
As disaster experts, practitioners, and policy-makers calculate how best national and international communities should respond to such emergencies, women are rarely included. This follows from the low representation of women in emergency management organizations and professions internationally, and these male-dominated recovery groups seeing disasters 'through the eyes of men' and organizing relief efforts in a manner that does not take gender differences and women's particular needs, concerns, and their potential for contribution during disaster preparedness, response and reconstruction into consideration. For example, sanitary napkins, contraceptives and counseling services for psychological distress and domestic violence are rarely available in emergency situations; there exists male bias in identifying the channels through which information is provided; and the dearth of data on the lives of girls and women before, during and after disaster.
Nexus of predation, vulnerability, complicity of state and non-state/family actors increases gendered harms.
Do not underestimate the predatory behavior of men even in non-disasters; e.g., midwives stopped going to homes at night to deliver babies because they were getting raped in the home by the pregnant woman's partner.
Disasters are not only powerful physical events but complex social experiences for individuals, households and communities.
Some provocative questions to consider:
So what does it mean to use a gender-informed approach?
Special Collection: Disaster and Emergency Preparedness and Response
Published by VAWnet, The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women.
Included in this collection are selected materials and resources -- many gender-informed -- that can be used by domestic and sexual violence organizations to increase their preparedness for and response to major disasters and emergencies. Also included is information developed for victims/survivors of domestic and sexual violence who are concurrently coping with trauma and stress after a natural disaster or major crisis. Special attention has been given to the issues faced by children in these situations. Note: Materials on this website focuses on disaster response in the U.S.
Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response (OHSEPR), Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
The Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response (OHSEPR) provides leadership in human services preparedness and response and to promote the self-sufficiency of individuals, families, and special needs populations prior to, during and after disasters.
Hesperian Health Guides
Hesperian Health Guides is a health information and health education source that develops and distributes health materials that provide knowledge for action, and inspire action for health. Its guides are designed in partnership with and for use by community health workers and others in poor and marginalized communities around the world to prevent and cure disease, and to challenge the social injustices that cause poor health. Materials are easy to read, medically accurate, and richly illustrated. Topics span from women's health, children, disabilities, dentistry, health education, HIV, to environmental health, and many publications are available in over 80 languages. In cases of emergency or natural disaster, the two chapters listed below are especially pertinent.
Persons depicted are models and are used for illustrative purposes only.
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