Natural disasters and the ensuing relocation and reconstruction efforts present unique challenges to women in developing countries. Successful relief and rebuilding strategies must anticipate these obstacles in order to minimize danger to women’s safety and leverage their potential to contribute to the redevelopment of their communities and countries.
In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, threats to women’s physical safety increase exponentially.
- Violence against women—the trauma of a natural disaster exposes the strengths and weaknesses in relationships, and a dramatic rise in violence against women consistently follows the advent of natural disasters. In Nicaragua, 27 percent of female survivors and 21 percent of male survivors of Hurricane Mitch reported increased violence within the family. Similar trends were reported in the Philippines after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. Even in developed countries, violence against women increases in the wake of a natural disaster. Following the Loma Prieta earthquake in California, reported sexual assault rose by 300 percent.
- Inability to meet basic needs—women are the majority of the world’s poor, and even in good times, many rely upon assistance to supplement their below-subsistence incomes. Disaster disrupts the flow of regular assistance, threatening women’s ability to care for themselves and their children. In Gujurat, India for example, many women depended on the provision of shakti packets to help meet their basic daily nutritional needs. Distribution stopped temporarily after the earthquake, cutting women off from one of their sources of subsistence. Similarly, women in several Gujarati villages reported that the earthquake abruptly terminated their healthcare.
The gendered nature of disaster continues into the reconstruction phase as women and families seek out new ways to make ends meet.
- Women heading households—natural disasters leave many women in charge of both household duties and supporting their families. In addition to widows who become wholly responsible for their children and elderly family members, wives head their households when their husbands migrate to find employment.
- Caring for more with less—as the primary caretakers in most developing countries, women experience an expansion of their household responsibilities after a disaster. Displaced family members seek refuge with those who have already resettled, and women face the challenge of providing for their growing families while access to resources dwindles. In particular, women struggle to provide water. Disasters tend to damage water systems, and women, who are chiefly responsible for transporting water, tend to spend more time gathering water.
- Job loss and poverty—women’s livelihoods tend to be very resource dependent. Therefore, when disaster destroys natural resources, women lose their source of income. For example, in Gujarat, India, many women found employment in the agricultural sector. When the earthquake hit in 2001, underground hydrological systems shifted resulting in contamination of the soil. Agriculture became less profitable, driving down the demand for workers with the types of skills that women had developed.
- No social safety nets—while women often find ways to cope with poverty prior to disasters, their solutions cannot withstand intensified poverty and reintegration into new communities. For example, women in Gujarat, India began savings groups that would provide small loans to members. However, after the earthquake, women reported that the availability of loans decreased.
- The cycle of poverty—disasters intensify women’s poverty and increase their workload, making it harder for them to access the types of resources and training they need to transition into sustainable livelihoods.
- Homelessness and property rights—the right to own property helps women, and especially widows and girl orphans, endure natural disasters and reestablish lives for themselves and their families. If women do not have the right to own property, they can lose their homes and fields. In Pakistan, a researcher documents a case in which a male family invoked Sharia Law so that he could inherit his deceased relative’s land. The widow and her two daughters found themselves homeless.
- Trafficking and the sale of girl children—faced with the possibility of starvation, impoverished families have made choices that trade girls’ futures for immediate survival. A Pakistani newspaper reported that in Baluchistan, Pakistan, a man sold his fifteen-year-old daughter for a few hundred rupees to feed the rest of his family.
You can help brighten the fate of women and children struck by natural disasters by signing the petition urging Congress to pass the Global Resources and Opportunities for Women to Thrive (GROWTH) Act.
Photo courtesy of Monia Sbreni