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.