On environmental feminism: women and natural disasters

Harriet Pinto 

It’s a known fact that natural disasters do not harm indiscriminately. A person’s socioeconomic situation plays a huge role in how well they are able to rebuild their lives after disaster strikes, and the extent to which their lives are affected in the first place. But there is a further relevant divide that determines how people are affected by natural disasters, which is gender. Studies have shown time and time again that whenever these events occur, usually in less developed parts of the world where women’s education, wealth and societal standing tends to be lower, more women are killed, and the impact on their lives is greater and more lasting.

The reasons for this are varied, but clearly the disasters themselves are not singling out women to target. It is, as ever, the structure of a society that places women at a disadvantage from the beginning, and in situations like these it has life-threatening consequences.

Often it is simply a case of cultural expectations. Women are frequently cast as caregivers and homemakers, and the pressure to fulfil this role makes the likelihood of them putting themselves and their own lives first in a crisis fall significantly. Research has shown that women frequently exhibit behaviour traits like going back into dangerous areas to look for loved ones, prioritising keeping family members together, or, in some extreme cases, being reluctant to evacuate their homes until their husbands have authorised them to do so.

Other cultural barriers exist which inhibit women’s ability to save their own lives. A case study from Bangladesh found that for women, running and climbing trees was socially frowned upon, and most of the time they were never taught to swim. During the 1991 cyclone disasters in Bangladesh, of the 140,000 people who died, 90% were women.

Clearly such inhibitions, as well as the fact that in many parts of the world many women live in areas with poorer infrastructure, go a long way towards explaining why statistics overwhelmingly show that more women than men are killed by natural disasters.

But what about in their aftermath? Having less financial independence, and less opportunity for education, women struggle to a greater extent to rebuild their lives after disasters. However they are also particularly vulnerable to gender-specific violence and exploitation in aid situations. Shelters specifically designed to save lives during disasters are usually not built with women in mind – they can lack the appropriate sanitation for menstruating women to use them safely, for one thing, but there have also been reports of women being forced to avoid using them for refuge because they fear rape and sexual violence once confined in them.

It is important that we try to change the damaging narrative that perceives women as passive victims of disaster, which of course is self-perpetuating. Organisations such as the World Bank, and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery are supporting programmes which require women to be involved and included both in decision making for natural disasters, and technologies which increase resilience in the face of them. Modernising hydro-met services such as those predicting and monitoring weather and climate, and improving infrastructure, help make sure people can evacuate safely, and governments can plan and adapt for disasters more effectively. But, though a step in the right direction, this is not enough.

Policymakers have failed when the specific needs of certain groups are ignored, downplayed and underrepresented, and so they have failed women in planning and responding to natural disasters throughout the parts of the world where they are already disadvantaged.

This is why it is absolutely crucial that women be involved in every aspect of crisis planning and preparation if they are going to be empowered and enabled to save their own lives during natural disasters. Vital information about the way communities operate, and the behavioural patterns of 50% of the people living in them, is lost whenever women are sidelined and ignored in these processes.

In addition to this, it’s clear that governments need to be far more proactive in protecting women’s rights throughout the entire recovery period of natural disasters. Women are exploited when they are vulnerable and they are never more so than in these situations, which is why far more needs to be done before the narrative of victimhood can ever be significantly altered for good.

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