Men and women are both impacted by disaster, but there is evidence to suggest that the way each gender experiences disasters, specifically response and recovery, may differ in some ways. Related to response, the numbers suggest that overall more women die and suffer injuries in disasters compared to men. Reasons for these statistics vary by situation, but are all related to women living in male-dominated cultures.
Dozens of international disaster relief organizations have flooded into Nepal over the past week. Most of them have brought much-needed help in terms of specialized knowledge, physical resources, and personnel. As aftershocks and search and rescue subside the people of Nepal, just like every country that experiences a disaster, will be faced with a recovery that will take many years. Hopefully, the recovery will be led by an empowered local community, with secondary assistance coming from international volunteers.
During this recovery process, research suggests women will likely face more severe and unique needs. This issue has been researched in a number of countries around the world following all manners of disasters and found similar results. Women face three areas of increased need that are interrelated; women’s health, an increase in gender-based violence, and economic strain.
In general, women in many parts of the world lack access to healthcare. During and after disasters this is exacerbated as healthcare facilities are destroyed and overwhelmed by individuals with disaster-related health needs (Callaghan, et al., 2007). Specifically, women lack access to reproductive health care during the early stages of recovery (Enarson, 1999).
Despite the post-disaster environment being filled with pro-social behavior (chaos and looting are considered to be “disaster myths” by experts (McEntire, 2007)) gender-based violence increases (Morrow & Enarson, 1996). While evacuated from their homes, women are often unsafe in public evacuation centers (Enarson, 1999) and temporary housing (Fordham, 1998). Reports of domestic violence increase (Morrow & Enarson, 1996) and as the violence increases more women seek shelter (Van Willigen, 2001) putting stress on already often strained women’s shelters. When disasters happen, the organizations that provide shelter for women in non-disaster times may, themselves be impacted (Wilson, Phillips, Neal, 1998; Houghton, 2010) or destroyed (Houghton, 2010) creating a scenario where there is increased need but decreased resources.
The reasons for the increase in domestic violence is tied to the resurgence of abuse in already abusive relationships (Wilson, Phillips, Neal, 1998), women re-entering abusive relationships after becoming homeless from the disaster (Enarson, 1999), and first time domestic violence brought on by stress from financial hardship (Ollenburger & Tobin, 1998).
Society’s pre-existing gendered division of labor is amplified post-disaster and often leaves women with a disproportional increase in work. Women are often responsible for leading the preparatory actions before a disaster happens (Brown, Jenkins, Wachtendorf, 2010) and caregiving responsibilities increase throughout the disaster (Van Willigen, 2001). Women’s social networks, more so than men's, tend to be neighborhood-based and after a disaster, men are disproportionately hired for recovery related employment (Van Willigen, 2001), furthering the pre-existing gender pay gap.
Since women are more likely to be the main providers of domestic-centered tasks (e.g., childcare, food, cleaning) they tend to be more likely to seek out aid than men (Van Willigen, 2001). Unfortunately, many aid programs are not designed to specifically meet the needs of women (Van Willigen, 2001) or worse there may be bureaucratic barriers in place that prevent women from receiving aid.
These issues are not unique to disasters. Lack of access to women’s health, gender-based violence, and economic strain are all issues that women around the world deal with in non-disaster times, but they are exacerbated following a disaster.
These realities do not diminish the strength that women demonstrate after a disaster. Women often single-handedly rebuild their lives, as well as the lives of their families. Women are not only a resource to their community but are central to every aspect of a community’s recovery. During recovery, women band together and create new organizations such as We Will Rebuild, a female-founded and led recovery organization created after Hurricane Andrew in Florida and Women of the Storm, created in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Our beneficiary, Women’s Foundation Nepal, has thus far exemplified what has been written in this blog post. They are a local, women-led organization that is helping the entire community while being oriented specifically towards meeting women’s needs. The narrative on gender and disaster needs to shift from viewing women as a vulnerable population with special needs to one of empowering half of the population and acknowledging that women are central to disaster recovery. Women’s Foundation Nepal is doing just that.
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