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Unveiling Gender Dynamics in South Asia’s Disaster Landscape

Yusra Lodi

South Asia and Disasters

South Asia has been highly susceptible to natural disasters, experiencing more than 900 occurrences since 1970. From 1990 to 2008, these disasters affected over 750 million people and led to nearly 230,000 fatalities. Being one of the poorest regions in the world, coping with these disasters is a challenge for South Asia. According to data compiled by the World Bank, approximately 750 million people in South Asia have been affected by at least one natural disaster in their life.

This vulnerability to disasters further worsens due to the impending climate crisis. Saleemul Haq, director at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, talking about the climate crisis, warned that the South Asian region is particularly at risk due to a combination of geography, population and poverty. Environmentalist Anjal Prakash also warned that climate change will have significant implications for food security in South Asia. He further added, “melting glaciers and changes in rainfall patterns can disrupt irrigation systems, affecting crop growth and exacerbating water scarcity.”

South Asia – A playground of gender disparity

The Global Gender Gap Report 2022 says that South Asia will take 197 years to close its gender gap. It has performed the poorest among the eight regions that were covered in the report, with only 62.4% gender gap closed.

The Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum considers four key dimensions to evaluate gender parity in countries. Those dimensions are – Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. South Asia has the widest gender gap on the Economic Participation and Opportunity subindex, closing only 35.7% of the gap while North America has closed 77.4% of the gap, highest in all eight regions compared. South Asia has also performed poorly on the Health and Survival dimension, with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India being among the worst-performing countries globally.

According to a report published by UNICEF South Asia, prevailing gender inequality in the region impacts the health of the girls. The report highlighted that one in every five adolescent girls are malnourished. Poverty and preference for sons over daughters often leads to female feticide as well as discrimination in breastfeeding. And when a crisis hits, unequal power relations leave girls more vulnerable to violence and with less access to primary health care services. The same report also highlighted the existing gender disparity in access to education and other opportunities.

The dynamics of sex are complex in South Asia with women being considered inferior and secondary to men. The cultural practices and gender norms of South Asia obstruct their growth and follow them all through their lives. These patriarchal values and preference to boys and men over them (UNICEF South Asia) shape their entire lives by robbing them of opportunities in all fields of life. Even in the most basic aspects of life like health and education, South Asian women have much fewer opportunities.

Gender, Disasters and South Asia

Having discussed South Asian women and the impact of disasters in the region, it is now easier to draw and comprehend the relation between the two. The usual saying that disasters do not discriminate is not true, they do. Disasters have gendered impact and this gendered impact gets even worse in societies where gender disparity is already high. South Asia is one such society. There are already a variety of factors that make women more vulnerable than men in times of disaster. Add to this the unique struggles of South Asian women due to their society.

Educational Gaps and Information Divide

South Asia has the highest gender literacy gap with a difference of 17 percentage points between men(79%) and women(62%). Due to the lack of knowledge about disasters or the practices that can help them save their lives, women find themselves at the center of the disasters without a way out. According to UNICEF South Asia, women and girls have 5 times less access to mobile phones than men. What we can’t learn in schools, we learn through the internet but South Asian women’s lack of access to both make it additionally hard for them to communicate to the world and get any kind of information about disasters or how to escape them. In her study, Gender Differences in Human Loss and Vulnerability in Natural Disasters: A Case Study from Bangladesh

Keiko Ikeda revealed that in Bangladesh, many men knew that the 1991 cyclone was approaching but most women came to know about it either indirectly through men, or some women remained unaware altogether.

The “son factor”

The preference for sons over daughters is well established in South Asia. Several studies have shown the unshakable want to have sons over daughters no matter the circumstances. In the South Asian region, female foeticide is quite  prevalent with India being at the top of the list.

The problem of female foeticide is the quintessential example of the status of women in the south asian region. Furthermore, out of all the daughters that are born, many are treated poorly and discriminated against in terms of education, health care or even healthy diet. Families focus on feeding the most nutritious food to the sons of the family, considering sons to be more important and their saviors. This lack of healthy diet makes women incapable of fighting in times of disasters. On top of that even during disasters, the preference for sons leads to going to whatever little food supplies are available, to the men of the family, leaving the women hungry. In the struggle to save the sons of the family, young girls and women are sold off for money or shelter.

According to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, after East Asia, South Asia is the fastest-growing and second-largest region for human trafficking in the world. According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, post-disaster human trafficking has become common in South Asia as an increase in extreme events caused by global warming leave the already poor even more vulnerable.

Tsunami Marriages: Surviving Disaster, Enduring Exploitation

In India altogether a new concept of  “tsunami marriages” emerged after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. As people were surviving in temporary shelters without basic amenities in post-disaster trauma, the government announced that it would provide financial assistance to the survivors, who had planned their marriages before the tsunami. While some of the marriages that were planned before the tsunami got the benefit, a surge of “unplanned” marriages followed the announcement. Many young girls as young as 15 were married to older men just for the sake of money and with the thought that a “burden” would be lifted off.

Is South Asian culture a double-edged sword?

South Asia is a very cultural region, sticking to their culture rather fiercely. As much as it is celebratory to practice one’s identity, these cultural practices impede its women in more ways than one. The practice of modest clothing in the larger part of South Asia works as a hurdle in their struggle to life and safety. Practices like “purdah” restrict women’s mobility and make them more vulnerable. They restrict women from entering men’s spaces, making it difficult for them to find ways out of disasters. Ikeda in her 1995 study also explored the gender norms and roles imposed by purdah. She said women hesitated to leave the homestead for safer places during the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, resulting in higher female mortality.

South Asian societies consider women as caregivers not fighters. This assigned role pulls them back in times of disasters, making them the last to evacuate these sites. Furthermore, women have little to no say in decision making. The man of the house unilaterally takes a decision and women follow it. According to a study published in Asian Women in 2016, during the 2013 Bihar floods, when people were evacuating their homes, many women were left waiting for their husbands to return home and make decisions regarding potential familial evacuation. Many women perished at home with their children, left obediently waiting for their husbands to return and make an evacuation decision. Many of these women who stay at home all their lives, might not have knowledge of the outside world or are inexperienced in making life decisions, so in the aftermath of disasters when the man of the house moves to another city to find work, these women find it difficult to manage both the household chores and the finances and budgeting of the family.

Moreover, in many rural areas there are women-headed households where women have the agency to make decisions but these households are not recognised by the government. So during disasters, these households are often left out from governmental policies making it hard for those women to survive.

What are we doing?

The Indian government has implemented various initiatives to address the unique needs of South Asian women in disaster situations, though the effectiveness of these efforts may vary. One notable initiative is the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which has integrated a gender-sensitive approach into its policies. The NDMA emphasizes the inclusion of women in disaster risk reduction planning and response efforts, recognizing their distinct vulnerabilities.

Additionally, the government has established women-centric programs like the National Mission for Empowerment of Women, aiming to enhance the socio-economic status of women and strengthen their resilience during disasters. However, challenges persist, including the need for better implementation and coordination at the grassroots level.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in India play a crucial role in complementing government efforts. Organizations like SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) and Oxfam India have undertaken projects to empower women in disaster-prone areas. These initiatives often focus on skill development, awareness campaigns, and community-based disaster preparedness. Despite these efforts, there is room for improvement.

As we examine these initiatives, one cannot help but ponder: Are our current governmental efforts not only scratching the surface but also missing the deeper transformation needed? Could it be that for true change, the very fabric of cultural and societal norms must undergo a profound shift? As climate change worsens, the frequency of these disasters will increase. In the wake of this, merely understanding women’s vulnerability is not enough nor is devising policies that only educate them without giving them agency.

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