Natural disasters kill more women than men. This must change

In poor countries, they care for children, the elderly, and the sick and so are less likely to be evacuated and are more likely to be at home when, say, an earthquake strikes, writes Bharati Sadasivam

When landslides devastated parts of Tajikistan’s Khatlon province in early 2009, the village of Baldzhuvan was better prepared than most.

Bibi Rahimova, a local community organiser, had spent years alerting people to the dangers of living beneath unstable terrain; when the hillside finally gave way, all of Baldzhuvan’s 35 households were evacuated safely, and no-one died.

Rahimova was part of a village emergency group trained by Oxfam International in disaster-risk reduction; her efforts before, during, and after the mudslides made her a hero in Tajikistan’s rugged west. But her heroism was also a reminder that lives are saved when women are included in disaster planning and recovery. Natural disasters disproportionately affect women and children, especially in countries where women’s socio-economic status is low. For example, when Oxfam tallied the death toll from the December, 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, it found that up to four times more women than men had died; in India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, 60-80% of those killed were women.

Such ratios have been repeated in countless other disasters, but, in the media, little attention is paid to differences in the numbers of men and women affected. Many factors contribute to the uneven risk, but gender bias is a leading cause. In poor countries, women are almost always primary caregivers, and their responsibility for children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled can delay evacuations.

When an earthquake hit south-eastern Turkey in 2011, many more women and children were killed than men, because so many caregivers were at home. Picture: AP/ Abdurrahman Antakyali, Aatolia

When an earthquake hit south-eastern Turkey in 2011, many more women and children were killed than men, because so many caregivers were at home.

Early-warning systems often fail to recognise that men and women receive and act upon information about disasters differently. After floods inundated parts of Serbia in 2014, focus groups discovered that women had waited for official notification to evacuate, while men based their exodus on informal networks. If official orders had been delayed or had never come, more women would have died.

Nor does working outside the home necessarily offer protection from disasters. Consider the textile trade, an industry dominated by women that is also notorious for locating factories in unsafe buildings that are vulnerable in earthquakes. And women who survive disasters often face challenges related to sexual and gender-based violence during the recovery.

In temporary housing or camps, women and girls are more vulnerable to violence and trafficking, and often endure poor sanitation, a lack of privacy, and limited access to menstrual hygiene products and reproductive health services.

Although people in charge of managing recovery efforts may intuitively understand women’s needs, post-disaster planning fails to account for differences in the needs and concerns of women and men.

To be sure, some international agreements are beginning to emphasise the gender-differentiated consequences of natural and human-caused calamities. One recent example is the 2015 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which was adopted in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. That resolution calls on signatories to consider gender at all stages of disaster mitigation, from preparedness to reconstruction.

Still, much work remains to be done, with four areas demanding urgent attention. First, increasing the number of women on search-and-rescue teams, because women are more likely to know the location of homes with children and elderly occupants. This is why a team of firefighters and first-responders in Kraljevo, Serbia, has been increasing the number of women within its ranks.

Second, more women must participate in post-disaster counselling, especially in regions where female survivors may not be as comfortable speaking with men about their trauma.

Third, disaster-related funding should be tailored for women’s circumstances. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, reconstruction programmes introduced after floods in 2014 prioritised housing grants for single mothers and channelled redevelopment funds to businesses with large female workforces.

Perhaps the most important challenge is simply to ensure that more women have a say in decisions related to risk-reduction and response.

One way is for community leaders and authorities to embrace the 20-point checklist developed by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, which identifies ways to make disaster-planning more responsive to gender. The checklist also encourages the media to report on gender differences in disaster risk and vulnerability.

Finally, communities and disaster-management authorities should adopt gender-specific strategies in all stages of disaster planning and response; a recent report published by the United Nations Development Programme and UN Women could serve as a useful practical guide. Disasters will continue to discriminate, unless we transform our responses to address their different effects on women and men.

Bharati Sadasivam is the United Nations Development Programme’s regional gender adviser for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.


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