Gender and disasters

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Swarna Rajagopalan, Kosi’s distressed daughters, New Indian Express, Chennai, September 17, 2008.

On August 18, the Kosi river broke through its embankments to flood most of Bihar and change course. The disaster has taken several lives, displaced over a million people and laid waste to hundreds of villages, not counting those who will die of waterborne infectious diseases in its wake.

So far, women have been mentioned in news reports in the context of childbirth and pregnancy. Some pregnant women have been abandoned by their husbands, but many others have given birth, naming their children after the Kosi.

There have also been reports of sexual harassment of female flood victims, describing government concern relating to the same. Many of the consequences of disasters cut across gender lines.

Death, disease, displacement, bereavement and the overnight loss of livelihood and homes are consequences that happen to men and women. The way in which these consequences are experienced is, however, different.

Studies have shown that women form a disproportionate number of those who die during disasters. The reasons reflect the limitations placed on them by virtue of their gender. After the tsunami, for instance, it was found that many girls and women drowned because, in spite of living in coastal areas, they had not learnt how to swim.

A dramatic change in sex ratio results, partly from death and disease and partly from men migrating to seek alternative livelihoods. Scholars have shown with examples from history that when men vastly outnumber women, levels of violence in general increase, and especially violence against women.

In fact, increased levels of violence and increased vulnerability to violence may be described as the second disaster to strike women and girls in the aftermath of natural calamities.

In a 2005 report, the World Health Organisation stated that interpersonal violence including child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, sexual violence and exploitation including sexual exploitation are likely to increase after a disaster. When women and girls lose their homes and livelihoods, they are particularly susceptible to forced marriage and trafficking.

Along with this comes the increased threat of getting sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.

In other contexts, feminist scholars have speculated on what it means to a woman when her home — ostensibly her safe haven — is destroyed. Homes are also the site of their closest relationships and much of their work.

The loss or destruction of a home can be particularly traumatic in settings where women are confined to their homes by the norms of their culture. Researchers have also explored the way the home changes when relatives who are also coping with disaster move in or when the family moves, for instance, to the roof or a boat for shelter.

For young girls, it can mean the loss of privacy for personal rituals, from changing clothes to washing. The risk of incestuous sexual abuse is heightened.

Often, discussions about gender and debates about security tend to dwell on macro-level structural or ideological questions, but for women coping with emergencies of any sort, it is the very personal, immediate needs that pose the biggest challenge.

Whether at home or in refugee camps, safe access to scarce bath and toilet facilities pose a real challenge. Harassment en route, prying and molestation while bathing and using the toilet, combined with the need to observe society’s norms of modesty limit when and how women can address their simplest bodily needs.

They end up limiting their excursions to the point where they are at risk for other kinds of illnesses and infections.

Between falling sick due to lack of basic facilities for hygiene and not being able to walk to work without fear of molestation, the ability of women to take care of themselves is greatly diminished. The loss of children in the tsunami resulted in an increased demand for recanalisation surgery as women came under pressure to give birth again.

Forced marriages occur in these circumstances as men seek to rebuild a family structure soon after the loss of their wives. Orphaned girls are particularly at risk. Female-headed households are not unique to post-disaster settings; however, compensation and relief are often distributed on the assumption that only men head households.

Where existing property papers are lost as are male property-owners, title is hard to establish. This is exacerbated by the loss of livelihood in the agricultural and informal sectors.

Without compensation, relief, the ability to reclaim a home or to access agricultural land or other means of livelihood such as a boat or a loom, women cannot rebuild their lives.

Disasters thus return women to a Hobbesian state of nature where life is “nasty, poor, brutish” and if you are lucky, short. If you are not lucky, you have to find a way to survive against the odds. As we look at the Kosi crisis in Bihar, the true challenge is not in providing symptomatic relief to victims. It is in recognising those elements of our social and cultural life that place women and girls especially at risk and in ensuring that these are not reproduced in the post-disaster dispensation. Where disaster is anticipated or occurs predictably, such as the Bay of Bengal cyclones and river floods in northeastern India, planned relief should take into account the special challenges faced by women and girls. Unchecked, the real catastrophe for women and children lies in post-disaster violence and loss of livelihood.

(Copied and pasted here because the link is not stable at this site. E-paper version.)

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