Why gender matters in natural disasters

Sarah Martin, Maria Holtsberg

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Why gender matters in natural disasters
'Even though the disaster itself doesn’t discriminate, society does, and certain practices within a society can leave women or other groups susceptible to harm'

A common statement in the disaster prevention and response world is, “When disasters strike, they do not discriminate.” It’s true everyone in a community is subject to the upheaval during a typhoon, tsunami or earthquake, but there are factors that determine who is more vulnerable.

Even though the disaster itself doesn’t discriminate, society does, and certain practices within a society can leave women or other groups susceptible to harm. The following examples show how the different roles that men and women play in society make women more at risk to natural disaster impacts.

In Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda that struck the Philippines in 2013, almost 40% of the healthcare centers were destroyed, leaving pregnant women to deliver their babies in unsafe and unclean environments as doctors and midwives struggled to reach them. 

A tsunami struck mid-morning in Sri Lanka 10 years ago and the dead women outnumbered the men by 4 to one. The men mostly survived because they were out at sea in boats or could swim due to their work as fishermen. Women, working in their homes and without needed swimming skills, were unaware of the dangers of the incoming tsunami and drowned.

WOMEN DURING DISASTERS. Despite the roles women play in households, they are usually left out of disaster prevention programs. Photo by Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock.com

The majority of those who died were women, children and elderly.  Since many caregivers lost their lives, the number of children sent to orphanages increased post-tsunami. 

In 2008, an earthquake killed 87,000 people and made 3.5 million people homeless overnight in Pakistan. In the rush to provide housing, widowed and single women were forced to live in close proximity with unrelated men. In Pakistani society, men protect the family name and women uphold the family’s honor and integrity through their reputation. Women who bring “dishonor” to their family by “ruining their reputation” by association with men who they are not related with can be killed by their male relatives as a way to “regain the family honor.”

Water from the Ganges River’s source in the Himalayas annually rushes down the Padme River, often flooding parts of Bangladesh where almost 30 million, mostly impoverished farmers, make their living.  

Despite women having important roles such as collecting drinking water, nursing the sick, and caring for the children, they are often left out of disaster prevention programs. In the past, government relief programs have denied services to women as they are supposed to rely on their husbands for support. However, the outflow of men working outside the country leave women-headed households in extreme poverty as they struggle to maintain their role.

Everywhere that natural disasters strike, the gender imbalance in power, money, education, and freedom of movement present in everyday society becomes magnified. If women have little ability to own land, become educated, or obtain government services, it becomes even more difficult after a disaster.

Yet women are still the “backbone” of the family in many societies and manage to provide for their families, nurse the sick, raise children, and contribute to the community. Looking at their vulnerabilities and strengths to critically assess the current disaster prevention and response models is key to improving the way that our societies manage natural disasters. – Rappler.com 

Sarah Martin has over 15 years’ experience in research, advocacy, training and project management with international organizations. She specializes in strengthening gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response in humanitarian settings, developing and conducting trainings, conducting qualitative research, and program management. Maria Holtsberg works as project manager in the Public Health in Emergencies Department at ADPC since 2013. Maria has experience in joint programming between NGOs as well as between United Nations agencies.

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