Gender and the Storm: Women and Natural Disasters

Disasters do discriminate. Natural and man-made emergencies have severe and apparent consequences for all men, women and children involved. However, a unique and significant share of the burden falls on the shoulders of the women in the impacted area.

Recent history shows that females are more likely to become casualties in many types of disaster scenarios than males. To make the matter worse, females are less likely to receive medical, hygienic or psychological aid when they need it. They also fall victim to domestic and violent abuse more often than males do.

“In Bangladesh women suffered the most following the cyclone and flood of 1991,” Lorenna Aguilar writes in a 2004 World Conservation Union (IUCN) article. “Among women aged 20-44, the death rate was 71 per 1000, compared to 15 per 1000 for men.

Aguilar examines the impact that long-term climate change has on men and women, but she also notes the disparity between the challenges that men and women face during catastrophes. She describes several social factors, including local traditions defining gender roles and social expectations, which contributed to the higher death rate of women affected by the cyclone.

Social factors are only one part of the problem though. In a 2007 study, titled “The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters,” Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper cite several reasons for the discrepancy between male and female mortality rates during disasters:

“First, biological and physiological differences between men and women may at times disadvantage women in their immediate response to the disaster.”

“Second, social norms and role behaviour may lead to a behaviour of women, which increases their vulnerability in the immediate course of the disaster.”

“And third, disasters may lead to shortage of resources of basic need as well as a temporary breakdown of social order, in which case the competition between individuals becomes fiercer and existing forms of gender discrimination become exacerbated and new forms of discrimination can emerge.”

Gender Bias in Disasters

Feminine Hygiene

“During the 1998 floods in Bangladesh, adolescent girls reported perineal rashes and urinary tract infections because they were not able to wash out menstrual rags properly in private, often had no place to hang the rags to dry, or access to clean water,” according to a 2002 World Health Organisation (WHO) publication. “They reported wearing the still damp cloths, as they did not have a place to dry them.”

Social taboos regarding feminine hygiene, risk of public humiliation and the difficulty of actually obtaining sanitary supplies magnifies the difference in hygienic needs between the genders. Feminine products are often left out of emergency aid kits by accident or ignorance, and they may not be as thoroughly distributed as more common necessities, like food and clean water, that both males and females need.

Gender Roles and Expectations

Social mobility, human rights and established cultural gender roles can create significant hazards for women both during and after a disaster occurs. Women in some areas are not taught basic survival skills that traditionally fit in masculine roles. In “Gender Equality and Adaptation,” Ariana Araujo and Andrea Quesada-Aguilar describe the consequences of this issue during the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka.

“In Sri Lanka, swimming and tree climbing are taught mainly to boys, which helped them survive and cope better than women when the waves of the tsunami hit,” according to an IUCN publication. “Social prejudice keeps girls and women from learning to swim, which severely reduces their chances of survival in flooding disasters.”

In some societies, women are prohibited or discouraged from traveling alone or making important domestic decisions. In a crisis situation, these trends may prevent females from fleeing or interfere with their ability to make logical, critical decisions about their personal safety.

Sexual Violence

Natural disasters and military conflicts damage infrastructure, disrupt communications and destabilise the prevailing social order. It is difficult for local and national governments to enforce, administer and fully restore the rule of law in heavily damaged regions. Social destabilisation can least for weeks, months or even years.

The general disorder and confusion greatly increases the risk of rape and other forms of sexual violence. Single women who have lost their husband or who are traveling in isolated areas are more vulnerable than those with a stable household.

“In the chaos and social breakdown that accompany natural disaster, women become uniquely vulnerable to sexual abuse, including rape and gang rape,” according to a 2005 report by the Global Fund for Women. “Domestic violence also increases, with local authorities often failing to intervene in what may be perceived as a ‘personal matter.’”

The report, which was written by Lin Chew and Kavita N. Ramdas, describes the vulnerabilities of women during times of crisis. While the breakdown of the social order during natural disasters certainly puts women in a more vulnerable position, the chance of women becoming a victim of sexual violence is much worse in regions plagued by military conflict.

Both official and rogue military units frequently abuse women, particularly those of different ethnic groups, as a psychological tactic against their perceived enemies. Sexual violence is also a significant problem in refugee camps, where many women and children are forced to live in close proximity to strangers after they are evacuated from a disaster-struck area.


Providing Aid to Women in Disasters

The dangerous and vulnerable condition of women in these areas isn’t without hope. Various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other groups have developed grants, initiatives and other projects specifically to assist women impacted by natural disasters.

The Global Fund for Women is one of the most prominent of these groups. According to the fund’s website, the Global Fund for Women “is a publicly supported, non-profit grant-making foundation that advances women's human rights by funding women-led organisations worldwide.”

While it is based in the United States, the Global Fund for Women works with communities and other organisations to assist women around the world. They helped provide relief for female victims of some of the most devastating disasters of the last two decades, including the Japanese tsunami in 2011, the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005.

“In one of the worst natural disasters in the history ofCentral America, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch left thousandsdead, and hundreds of thousands without homes or anymeans of income,” according to Chew and Ramdas. “In the wake of Mitch’s devastation, theGlobal Fund for Women awarded $98,500 to 13 women’sorganisations in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala whomobilised quickly to provide shelter to families, preventhunger crises, and address psychological trauma.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also recognises the unique needs of female disaster victims. The WHO’s Department of Gender, Women and Health researches and assesses the impact that natural disasters have on women.

Despite the efforts by educational institutions, government agencies and non-profit organisations, there is still a need for more information regarding the impact that disasters have on women. Experts studying the relationship between gender and natural disasters frequently echo the need for more research, particularly for data that is separated by sex.

“We acknowledge, however, that much more interdisciplinary research between medical and social scientists is needed to fully understand the interplay between mortality and gender in the presence of natural disasters,” Neumayer and Plümper wrote in the conclusion of their 2005 study. “We also need more research to fully understand why and how disaster strength interacts with mortality in general and with female mortality in particular.”

Integrating Women into Emergency Management

In many third world countries women are marginalised from the outset; restricted to child rearing and household duties. In the West, women are demonstrating their capacity to contribute insightful and valuable perspectives on all manner of professions. Emergency management is perhaps, a field in which women are underrepresented and initiatives should be set in place to build more effective emergency organisations with a broad base that reflects the diversity of the country it represents and its future. Actively recruiting women for roles in emergency management is essential.

Sources (sorted by citation appearance):

1. International Union for the Conservation of Nature: “Climate Change and Disaster Mitigation.” Lorenna Aguilar. 2004.

2. Association of American Geographers: “The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters.” Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper. January 2007.

3. The World Health Organisation: “Gender and Health in Disasters.” July 2002.

4. International Union for the Conservation of Nature: “Gender Equality and Adaptation.” Ariana Araujo and Andrea Quesada-Aguilar.

5. The Global Fund for Women: “Caught in the Storm: The Impact of Natural Disasters on Women.” Lin Chew and Kavita N. Ramdas. December 2005.