How natural disasters affect women

When disasters strike, they do not discriminate. Everyone, without exception in the disaster zone will be affected.

Woman in Mexico

While disasters do not make decisions, people most certainly can and do. Before, during and in the aftermath of disasters, human beings perpetuate social patterns of discrimination, and these entrenched patterns cause certain groups of people to suffer more than others (Singh, 2009).

The differentiated impact of disasters on men and women is primarily caused by the existing gender inequalities manifested. As a 2007 study conducted by London School of Economic shows, taken a sample of up to 141 countries over the period 1981 to 2002, natural disasters and their subsequent impact, on average, kill more women than men or kill women at an earlier age than men related to women’s lower socio-economic status (Neumayer and Plümper, 2007).

Indeed, it is recognized worldwide that people’s vulnerability to risks depends to a large extent on the assets they have available. In general, women tend to have more limited access to assets — physical, financial, human, social, and natural capital such as land, credit, decision-making bodies, agricultural inputs, technology, extension and training services which would all enhance their capacity to adapt.

Special attention should therefore be paid to the need to enhance women’s capacity to manage risks, with a view to reducing their vulnerability and maintaining or increasing their opportunities for development.

In reality, while women’s vulnerability to disasters is often highlighted, their actual and potential roles in disaster risk reduction have often been overlooked. Few existing disaster risk reduction policies and projects recognized the skills and capacities women which could significantly contribute to disaster risk reduction policies and building resilience.

Gender-specific capacities of women deriving from their social roles proved to be beneficial for their whole communities during every stage of the disaster cycle. Women’s high level of risk awareness, social networking practices, extensive knowledge of their communities, task in managing natural environmental resources and caring abilities (Aguilar, et al., 2008) makes of them important players of effective risk assessment, early warning, disaster response and recovery actions.

In Honduras, for example, the village of La Masica was the only community to register no deaths in the wake of the 1998 Hurricane Mitch. Six months earlier, a disaster agency had provided gender-sensitive community education on early warning systems and hazard management. Women took on the abandoned task of continuously monitoring the warning system. As a result, the municipality was able to evacuate the area promptly when the hurricane struck.

Despite the above-mentioned facts, for many years disaster risk reduction has been treated as gender-neutral, with disasters seen as physical events requiring only physical prevention and recovery.

As to the latest developments, the Beijing Agenda for Global Action on Gender-Sensitive Disaster Risk Reduction has been adopted at the International Conference on Gender and Disaster Risk Reduction, held from April 20 to 22 this year in Beijing. This agenda sets nine goals to be achieved before 2015.

Beijing Agenda for Global Action on Gender-Sensitive Disaster Risk Reduction

1. Increase political commitment to gender analysis and gender mainstreaming through enhanced cooperation and collaboration between Ministries responsible for disaster risk reduction, climate change, poverty reduction and gender issues, with the participation of civil society;

2. Develop and review national policies, relevant laws, strategies, plans and budgets and take immediate action to mainstream gender into national development policies, planning and programmes;

3. Foster the linkage between disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation from a gender perspective through policy and administrative measures;

4. Collect gender-specific data and statistics on impact of disasters, carry out gender-sensitive vulnerability, risk and capacity assessments and develop gender sensitive-indicators to monitor and measure progress;

5. Increase awareness of the public and media on the gender-sensitive vulnerabilities and capacities in disasters and gender-specific needs and concerns in disaster risk reduction and management;

6. Support research institutions to study the cost-benefit and efficiency of gender-sensitive policies and programmes in disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and poverty reduction;

7. Secure the actual application of disaster risk assessments as part of development policy-making and programme formulation to prevent disasters from making the poor even poorer;

8. Improve and mainstream a gender perspective and equal participation between men and women in the coordination of disaster preparedness humanitarian response and recovery through capacity building and training; and

9. Build and enhance the capacities of professional organizations, communities and pertinent national and local institutions to enable gender mainstreaming into all development sectors.

No amount of human planning, preparedness, or scientific investigation can completely prevent all catastrophes. Nevertheless, preventing social catastrophes most certainly lies within our collective human capacity. By upholding women’s rights we are, in fact, making one of the most crucial preparations associated to disaster risk reduction that any society can make.

By Lorena Aguilar

Singh, A. (2009). Speech at the International Conference on Gender and Disaster Risk Reduction. April 20-22, 2009. Beijing, China.

Neumayer, E., & Plümper, T. (2007). The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters: The Impact of Catastrophic Events on the Gender Gap in Life Expectancy, 1981–2002. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 97(3), 551–566.

Aguilar, L., et al. (2008). Training Manual on Gender and Climate Change. San José, Costa Rica: IUCN, UNDP, GGCA.

Work area: 
Disaster Risk Reduction
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