In a world still reeling from Covid-19, while there is a plethora of information documenting the effects of the pandemic, a gendered assessment of the same is often overlooked. In this article, Shagun Singh analyses the heightened impact of natural disasters on women and discusses potential solutions to facilitate balanced crisis management.

A few months ago, I came across a rather harrowing picture on my Instagram feed. It was a picture of a pregnant woman, with a child clutched to her waist, wading through overflowing water. The caption expressed the ferocity of Amphan, the cyclone that lashed the coastal areas of Bengal and Orissa, devastating millions of lives. My heart sank upon seeing that photograph. I don’t have the resources to find out if she was compensated for her loss and/or provided with the basic medical facilities a pregnant woman is typically entitled, but I am sure that there are plenty like her, bearing the brunt of inequitable access to resources, capabilities and opportunities.

This led me to do a bit of digging into the issue, which then revealed that while a disaster may appear to be gender-agnostic in impact, it is far from it. Economic, social and cultural patterns result in the low socioeconomic status of women, thus making them more vulnerable to the wrath of natural disasters. The aftermaths also make them susceptible to sexual and gender-based violence, loss of livelihood and education, and forced and early marriages.

Facts and figures: Is Disaster Truly Different for a Man and for a Woman?

On this front, I came across some appalling statistics.: Studies have shown how women survivors of the 2010 Pakistan flood had restricted access to food assistance and medical services because they did not have ownership of National Identification Cards – a jarring example of a socio-economic disparity impacting women who, unlike men, were unequal casualties of a natural disaster. In 1991, fourteen women were killed for every man by Cyclone Gory that hit Bangladesh. The mortality numbers are also a testimony to the disparity between genders in terms of survival. Women faced 61% casualties after Cyclone Nargis that struck Myanmar in 2008, and 70% after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004.

These statistics are telling us that the aftermath of a disaster has a unique story depending on the country’s climatic, socio-economic and political conditions, cultural beliefs and traditional practices. If we inspect each factor above, we realize that women continue to be compromised in each scenario. For instance, case studies on disasters have shown how women perished inside homes with their children, because they had been waiting for their husbands to return home and make an evacuation decision. After the 1998 Bangladesh floods, adolescent girls suffered from  perennial rashes and urinary tract infections as they were unable to wash their menstrual rags in private and could not hang them in public owing to entrenched social taboos.

Further, in events of survival, women are exposed to heightened levels of threat. Rushed to rehabilitation centers or spaces elusive to privacy, they fall prey to sexual exploitation. As a result, their mental health takes a hit. A fact-finding mission on the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy revealed that even after 17 years, women were reeling with post-traumatic stress disorders. The women survivors of the 2002 Gujarat communal riots showed symptoms of avoidance and hyper-arousal because of the various forms of violence, abuse and harassment, to which they had been subjected.

Possible Solutions?

Some reading on the subject has led me to a few things we can begin to do, in response to the issues outlined above. Due to paucity of space, I have provided a few of the notable ones here. Please supplement these with further reading.

Collection of data that accurately accounts for women’s lives: The first step to ward off the disaster of evil is collection of gender-disaggregated data. In the Economic Survey 2018, India showed that current surveys need redesigning to include additional questions on the prevalence of violence against women and girls. This could assist in unmasking geographical disparities. A comprehensive analysis of gender equal data will thus help in visualizing the complex realities of women and the inequities by which their lives are defined, including their access to land, technology and decision-making bodies. Mapping this data successfully could help in devising more comprehensive, efficient, and relevant response systems.

Amping up awareness drives: Another thing to revisit for better preparedness with respect to natural disasters, is the mode of communication used to spread awareness. An excellent example of the same is the initiative taken by the Java Reconstruction Fund project to tackle an earthquake that shook Indonesia in 2006. They chose ice-cream vendors to be their "barefoot texting" service. These peddlers would go around spreading community news and project related information while also selling ice-cream. Not all women can read the community board and are sometimes tucked in remote areas where help may not reach them. Similar creative and issue-sensitive awareness drives could help disseminate information more effectively.

Bettering the shelters: More often than not, the rehabilitation camps and housing shelters are a scare. With increased security risks and little to no privacy, a woman's dignity is often under threat in such spaces. These spaces must be designed in a gender-responsive manner. The washrooms and toilets should be clean, well-lit and the routes to them must be safe. Sanitation facilities must be top-notch to reduce physical strains on pregnant and lactating females. These temporary settlements must be well equipped to thwart and prevent any form of sexual harassment.

Notably, my research into this subject has revealed that: India is a signatory to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which the UN adopted in March 2015, to plan procedures in making its stakeholders more disaster resilient. This is perhaps the first international framework to include a gendered perspective in its response strategies. This framework has leveraged the gender-specific capacities of men and women to potentially dodge a host of challenges faced by them.

As we find ourselves knee-deep in a pandemic, this gender-sensitive discourse with respect to the impact of natural disasters is more important than ever. It is important to recognize this strange reality that often slips through the cracks: that men and women are unequal casualties in a disaster that seemingly affects everyone the same way. It is time we woke up to this reality and worked out a fair way forward.

Supplement this reading with: