Women and disaster: Isra Mcdad and her husband were planning for the arrival of their baby when Israel launched airstrikes on Palestine. From planning the arrival of their baby, Mcdad and her husband went to evacuating their house and searching for refuge. The hospital they planned to go to was targeted in the airstrike, Mcdad was confused and stressed, she was due in two weeks. When she went into labor, the nearest hospital her husband had rushed her to declined admitting her, as it was at full capacity. Amidst the grief and shock of losing loved ones in ongoing war, for Mcdad this was a double whammy of giving birth in such conditions. Balancing anxieties that comes under such condition is a story of numerous women in Gaza, and is common to women who undergo similar disasters.
Why women are front bearers of disaster risks?
According to UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during disasters. Whether man made or natural, disasters are harsher to women and the biggest contributor to this their role as primary caretaker of home and family. Neumayer and Plümper conducted a study in 141 countries, analysing the relation of gender equality with the number of deaths in disasters. They found that in societies with more gender parity, the number of deaths in both sexes are equal. In developing countries like South Asian countries where gender inequality is high, it becomes all the more difficult for women to navigate through disasters of any kind. Another study conducted by Keiko Ikeda, analysed the 1991 cyclone disasters in Bangladesh. Of the 140,000 people who died, 90% were women. There are many factors that make women more vulnerable to these disasters. It is essential to identify these factors in order to build an inclusive disaster risk management system.
Are women more vulnerable in disasters than men?
As a primary caretakers of households, looking after the men, children and elderly, for women, the job adds up many fold at the times of disasters. Women often result in being the last to evacuate the site of disaster. During hurricane Katrina in southeastern United States, 80% of the people that remained behind in New Orleans after the necessary evacuation was issued were women. Even after disasters women take up the responsibility of looking after their family members. Women and children are often considered as a single unit further leading them to sacrifice their share of food and shelter for their children and exposing themselves to the devastating conditions of the disaster.
Lack of life saving skills among women too is a reason for women being more prone to impact of disasters. In A practical guide to Gender-sensitive Approaches for Disaster Management published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, they identified that one of the reasons women are more vulnerable in disasters is because they are never taught life saving skills like swimming and climbing a tree. They are handicapped when it comes to saving themselves during tsunamis or cyclones. Other cultural practices like purdah system or even modest clothing become obstructions for women in saving themselves against disasters.
Women are the fundamental beings of life, they are the glue holding societies together, yet most of the relief supplies focus on men’s needs and contain items for them. Women’s specific needs are not taken into account. In times of disasters, women fail to maintain proper menstrual hygiene due to the lack of sanitary napkins. During floods or man made disasters like wars, women struggle to find clean water to wash their menstrual rags and many times, these rags are reused before they even dry, leading to urinary tract infections and other reproductive issues. Such issues can result in bigger problems like infertility. According to a report of WHO, during the 1998 floods of Bangladesh, cases of rashes and urinary tract infections in adolescent girls increased due to poor menstrual hygiene. Living in shelters after disasters is even more traumatising for women, as they continuously live in fear for their safety and security. These shelters have makeshift toilets and bathrooms which women hesitate to use in the fear of being exposed to the male members of the shelter, this further affects their hygiene and health.
After the 2013 flood in Bihar, Indu Devi, a survivor, said that God has made her a female only to punish her for her past sins. This shows the agony and turmoil that women face during disasters. She had no knowledge of the flood warning and did not know where to leave without her husband’s permission who was not in the house then. Even after the disaster passes, women continue to suffer in more ways than one. Post-disasters, men leave to safer places to find work, leaving women behind to look after not only the domestic affairs but to also function as the head of the family. With no knowledge of the outside world and incapable of taking even the smallest of decisions, they suffer physically as well as mentally when men are gone.
Sexual violence as a weapon in wars and conflicts
Sexual exploitation, especially in poor countries with high gender inequality is another aspect of women being more prone to disasters. Sexual assault occurs in many layers and at many hands. During natural disasters, sexual predators assault women in return for saving their lives or for providing them food and shelter. In man-made hazards, sexual assault is used as a weapon against the enemy. In the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, Hamas used sexual violence as its major weapon in its October 7th attack. In the investigation done by The Times, four witnesses have described seeing Israeli women being raped. Soldiers and medics interviewed by The Times revealed that they found around 30 bodies of women with their legs spread apart, clothes torn and genitals mutilated. Similar pattern of sexual violence against women was recorded during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Major General Patrick Cammaert of the UN Mission in Congo, in a statement said ‘it is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern wars”. Women end up becoming the primary targets for enemies to send out messages of their powers.
Violence faced by women does not end here, women also face violence by their Intimate Partner post-disasters as a result of stress and anxiety. In a study conducted after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, it was concluded that there was an increase in the Intimate Partner Violence in the four states (Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh) with 232% increase in sexual violence in Tamil Nadu which was severely effected by the Tsunami.
Life born or life lost?
Around 50,000 women in Gaza are pregnant with more than 5000 expected to deliver by February. Delivering in these inhumane and stressful conditions with no medical aid and important infrastructure. In times like these pregnancies become chains pulling women down from escaping human enemies or natural hazards. According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, many women in Gaza are miscarrying pregnancies due to the shock and anxiety of forced evacuation. The toppling healthcare system of Gaza is failing to help the women who are due to deliver. Disasters create unsanitary conditions for giving birth, with lack of access to medical assistance and necessary healthcare during or after the pregnancy. Pregnant women or women who have just delivered have specific needs and require good hygiene and diet, both of which become impossible to get in times of disasters further adding to their vulnerabilities.
India is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries with 27 of its 28 states and seven union territories exposed to recurrent natural hazards such as cyclones, earthquakes, landslides, floods and droughts. Yet it is not fully prepared in identifying specific needs of women. Existence of Sex-disaggregated data helps the policymakers in recognising the specific needs of women and formulating policies that particularly benefit them. India lacks this sex-disaggregated data which along with other gender related discrimination and gaps makes it difficult to identify issues affecting women. However the Psychosocial Support(PSS) module offered by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) to disaster survivors focuses on the holistic recovery of survivors. It includes all aspects of human life like, livelihood, housing, water and sanitation, microfinance and so on. This module is still being developed and implemented in disaster interventions for the recovery of women affected in these disasters.
(Yusra Lodi is a journalism student at Aligarh Muslim University, MassComm Dpt)