Natural disasters from a gender perspective

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By Indraswari,  Kuala Lumpur

On Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck West Sumatra, leading to massive destruction in the provincial capital Padang and surrounding areas. More than 800 people are confirmed dead and thousands missing.

Earlier, on Thursday, Sept. 3, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck West Java. At least 57 people were killed, 116 severely injured and 422 left with minor injuries from the powerful quake centered off the coast of Tasikmalaya that was also felt in Jakarta, Lampung and Bali (The Jakarta Post, Sept. 4, 2009).

The above earthquakes are neither the first nor the last ones in Indonesia, as scientists warn that Indonesians must prepare for strong earthquakes in the future.

In fact, human beings have been at the mercy of natural disasters since the beginning of time.

The last two earthquakes as well as other natural disasters such as floods, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides, droughts and famine remind us of how vulnerable we are.

While natural disasters are natural phenomena, their social, political and economic impacts are not necessarily natural. Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plumper, in their article "The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters: The Impact of Catastrophic Events on the Gender Gap in Life Expectancy, 1981-2002", state that, "In fact a vulnerability approach to disasters would suggest that inequalities in exposure and sensitivity to risk as well as inequalities in access to resources, capabilities and opportunities systematically disadvantage certain groups of people, rendering them more vulnerable to the impact of natural disasters" (Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 97(3), 2007, pp 551-566).

In other words, victims of natural disasters are not the same category of people. Women, children and the elderly are those in the vulnerable groups, and each of them has special needs.

Women especially become more vulnerable in the aftermath of natural disasters, as long before the disasters occur many of them are already the victims of gender-based discrimination and marginalization that lead to their interests not being accommodated.

In the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, when relief efforts are concentrated on finding survivors and meeting their basic needs for food, water and shelter, it is important to also include meeting the women's basic and special needs, such as sanitary pads for those who are menstruating and those who give birth in the refugee camps. Lactating and pregnant women at the camps also deserve special attention and care.

Although living in refugee camps is considered an emergency and for only temporary, women's safety in the camps needs to be guaranteed. The potential for sexual harassment has to be minimized by providing separate bathrooms and spaces that protect their privacy.

When it comes to the reconstruction phase - which normally includes rebuilding houses, schools, roads and other physical infrastructure as well as economic empowerment programs for the survivors - it is important to apply gender awareness and sensitivity and to make sure that women are not discriminated against in getting access to resources such as housing facilities and credit.

Elaine Enarson (2000), in her paper Gender and Natural Disasters, suggests that the most striking effect of disasters on women is the loss of economic resources and deterioration of economic status.

She adds that women on the margins of survival, living the "daily disaster" of poverty before, during and after natural disasters, are especially vulnerable.

In both the immediate and reconstruction phases, it is also necessary to provide childcare support - which under patriarchal norms are regarded as women's responsibility - so that women can have more room to move on to rebuild their life. This in turn will also benefit men and other family members.

Apart from becoming the victims, in the aftermath of natural disasters women can also become agents of change.

Various studies indicate that women are not necessarily passive victims who do nothing. Instead they play an active role in rebuilding their lives and those of their families.

In this context, it is important to involve women in the decision-making process in all stages of post-disaster relief efforts.

The writer is an Indonesian visiting senior lecturer at the Gender Studies Program, School of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. The opinions expressed are her own.

[Further Reading]

World Health Organization, Gender and Disaster

Gender and Disaster Network

UNISDR: Gender and Disaster Sourcebook


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