women flooding PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images

Disasters Discriminate – Our Response Should Not

Natural disasters disproportionately affect women and children, especially in countries where women’s socioeconomic status is low. To guard against reproducing gender bias in disaster mitigation and recovery, women must become part of the planning process long before calamity strikes.

ISTANBUL – 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 organizer, 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 lives were lost.

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 did something else, too: it served as 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 socioeconomic 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. The problem begins with the way in which disasters are reported in the media, with little attention 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 southeastern Turkey in 2011, the number of women and children killed was significantly higher than men because so many caregivers were at home at the time.

Research also suggests that early-warning systems often fail to recognize 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. It is not a stretch to conclude that 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 disaster-related risks. Consider the textile trade, an industry dominated by women that is also notorious for locating factories in unsafe buildings that are often among the most vulnerable in earthquakes.

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Adding to these dangers, women who survive disasters often face challenges related to sexual and gender-based violence during the recovery phase. 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 and response fails to account for differences in the needs and concerns of women and men.

To be sure, some international agreements are beginning to emphasize 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 is essential, in part because women are more likely to know the location of homes with children and elderly occupants. This is among the main reasons a team of firefighters and first responders in Kraljevo, Serbia, has been working since 2016 to increase the number of women within its ranks.

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

Third, disaster-related funding should be tailored for women’s unique circumstances. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, reconstruction programs introduced after floods in 2014 placed a high priority on housing grants for single mothers and channeled redevelopment funds to businesses with large women 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 everywhere 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.

Although disasters affect entire communities, women often bear the brunt of the burden. Disasters will continue to discriminate, unless we transform our responses to address their different effects on women and men – as the people of Baldzhuvan can readily attest.

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