Gender and natural disasters

Gender and natural disasters: Why we should be focusing on a gender perspective of the Tsunami disaster

By Rochelle Jones

December 26, 2004 will be etched forever in the minds of millions of people around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have been directly affected by the Tsunamis that crashed into the shores of countries situated on the Indian Ocean less than two weeks ago. Millions of others continue to watch the media coverage of the aftermath, with massive aid efforts being co-ordinated globally, and billions of dollars pledged to help those whose livelihoods have been destroyed.

There has been talk of an early warning system that could have prevented the enormous scale of the disaster by allowing time for people to evacuate, but what about the social and economic dimensions of natural disasters? Is there a way to prevent some of the social difficulties faced in the aftermath of natural disasters? Can natural disasters be used as a platform for positive social change in communities?

Research conducted in 2000 by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) (1) suggests that gender is an important dimension within disasters such as the Indian Ocean Tsunamis. It has been argued that vulnerability to natural disasters and their consequences is gendered and socially constructed, meaning that women and men face different challenges during natural disasters because their roles in society have been constructed differently. When we look at natural disasters from this perspective, we can conclude that the physical aspect of the Tsunamis is fixed, but the social and economic aspects are not. They can be reshaped, used and sometimes abused. This is incredibly important for women in particular because women are made more vulnerable to disasters through their socially constructed roles.

What are the gendered impacts of natural disasters?

The social and economic impacts of disasters such as the Tsunamis depend largely on the structures in which they take place. Obviously, some people are more at risk than others because of their socio-economic status, barriers to choice and lack of access to resources. A disaster such as the one we have just witnessed in Asia exposes these inequalities, particularly in the aftermath of a disaster where people are simply unable to recover their losses due to their abject poverty. The ILO calls this ‘disasters by design’ where ‘global development patterns put rising numbers of people increasingly at risk’ (1).

Gender inequality plays an important role in the level of vulnerability to natural disasters and their consequences. Women are more vulnerable during disasters because they have less access to resources, are victims of the gendered division of labour, and they are the primary caregivers to children, the elderly and the disabled (2). This means that they are less able to mobilise resources for rehabilitation, more likely to be over-represented in the unemployed following a disaster, and overburdened with domestic responsibilities leaving them with less freedom to pursue sources of income to alleviate their economic burdens. It is most often the women who go without food in order to feed their families during a disaster, also. In addition to these issues, women are often the victims of domestic and sexual violence following a natural disaster. There have already been unconfirmed reports of rape and sexual molestation in Sri Lanka during rescue efforts after the Tsunami (3), and reports of human traffickers taking advantage of women and children’s vulnerability in Aceh. Abhorrent acts of rape, violence and harassment against women in areas of war are well documented and analysed. Similar events in the aftermath of natural disasters are often overlooked or receive scant attention.

Recognizing the important role that gender plays in disaster management and relief, it is alarming that gender concerns often get pushed to the background in the event of a natural disaster. There is an obvious need directly after the disaster has occurred to provide basics to victims such as food, clothing, shelter and fresh water, regardless of gender. Given that disasters such as earthquakes, floods, droughts, hurricanes and landslides will always occur, however, it is imperative to ensure that a gender perspective is included in all natural disaster management programmes so that the relief efforts are able to properly address needs and concerns for both women and men.

According to the Pan American Health Organisation, a Regional office of the World Health Organisation, looking at natural disasters from a gender perspective is an urgent requirement to understand what disaster means to every-day reality:

The majority of relief efforts are intended for the entire population of a disaster-affected area, however, when they rely on existing structures of resource distribution that reflect the patriarchal structure of society, women are marginalised in their access to relief resources (2).

Women and children constitute the majority of victims seen in the media’s representation of natural disasters. Beyond the camera lens in the follow-up policies, however, there is a trend for women to be rendered almost invisible. Policies are formulated without careful consideration of asymmetrical power relations based on gender, leading to a silencing of women’s experiences and strategies (1). There are even barriers to women’s participation in disaster relief because some areas are not considered safe for women to work. This has major implications for women survivors who want assistance from women relief workers. The ILO has found that in many cases, female survivors are unable to freely discuss their needs with male relief workers, and that female workers are simply non-existent (1).

Can natural disasters be used as a platform for social change?

Just as women are more vulnerable to the consequences of natural disasters, they are often the most innovative actors in implementing immediate relief to their families and communities. According to Madhavi Ariyabandu Programme Manager of Disaster Mitigation, ITDG South Asia, women play a major role in risk and emergency management (4). She argues that the social role assigned to women in South Asian societies as caregivers and nurturers naturally extends to risk management, to secure life and the continuity of livelihoods, and to maintain the life support systems, in times of disasters. Community based organizations naturally redirect staff and resources towards natural disaster relief when it is necessary and women form groups and mobilise to meet the most pressing needs of the community.

In some cases women use the disaster as an opportunity to change society’s perceptions of a woman’s capabilities and challenge their gendered roles in society. Women in Nicaragua, for example, organised a very effective campaign against gender-based violence in response to increasing levels noted after a destructive hurricane swept through the area. The message they conveyed through the media was Violence against women is one disaster that men can prevent (2). Women publicly involved in relief work in non-traditional tasks such as building houses and digging wells also often become role models in their communities and reduce barriers to women in the public sphere (1).

In order to reduce the harm associated with natural disasters, it is necessary to recognise that vulnerability precedes disasters. The Tsunamis have disempowered hundreds of thousands of people in Asia, but the aftermath will in many cases have a more prominent effect on women. Linking disaster management plans and humanitarian assistance with gender dynamics will precipitate a greater understanding of what is needed to ensure that women’s unique circumstances during natural disasters are not only recognised, but acted upon.