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When typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters happen, it does not choose between age, class, race or gender. Everyone is affected. Lives are lost, properties are destroyed and communities displaced. But what many do not know is that disasters affect men, women, boys and girls in different ways with women and girls being the most vulnerable group. Consequently, the fatality rate is higher for women than men.

When the 2004 tsunami struck Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, four times as many women than men lost their lives. One reason for this was more men learned to swim and climb trees at an early age than women. During the 1991 cyclone hit Bangladesh, 90% of the victims were women between the ages of 20-49 years because their mobility was restricted due to cultural norms. As more men were at work, women were left at home when the disaster struck. Research showed that they chose to stay to protect their properties, while some prioritized the rescue of children and the elderly.

There were reports that one woman chose to stay behind in the recent volcanic eruption of Mt. Semeru in Indonesia. The woman chose to stay at home with her elderly family member instead of getting evacuated, which cost both their lives.

More and more stories like these are being reported and it highlights the gender inequality that takes place during disasters.

Socio-economic backgrounds, cultural norms and traditions are some of the reasons why women are most vulnerable during disaster management and emergencies. In developing countries, there are less opportunities for women to get education and employment. There are also more male leaders in humanitarian organization and disaster management organizations which affects planning and policy making.

The needs of men, women, boys and girls differ across class and age as do their resources and coping strategies. An example is relief efforts at one evacuation center for victims of Mt. Semeru’s eruption. Women voiced out their need for underwear since they cannot wash clothes and the need for diapers for babies.

Studies show too that during disaster emergencies, incidents of gender-based violence against women increase. It is estimated that “1 in 5 refugee or displaced women in complex humanitarian settings have experienced sexual violence.” The psychological and emotional effect on people get heightened during disasters and women often become victims of the violence.

But progress has been made in recent years to address the gender inequality. In the massive earthquake in Mexico, women formed groups and led rescue and relief efforts which hastened the recovery process. In Nepal, foreign-funded projects helped set-up women’s cooperatives to help communities get back on their feet after the big earthquake.

Developed countries are not spared gender inequalities in humanitarian response. Japan has been rocked by powerful earthquakes in the past and this has highlighted the need to recognize and protect women’s rights during disasters. Incidents of gender-based violence rise during emergencies. One report says that a woman got raped after the earthquake and reported this to the local authorities, who in turn said that she should be considerate as the man who perpetuated this was also dealing with the trauma post-earthquake. To make disaster management for gender sensitive, the Japan government sent all their local governments notification to include the needs of women and children in disaster response planning.

Disaster management needs to be gender-sensitive especially on the most vulnerable group. Gender equality needs to be recognized as early as the planning stage so that the needs of everyone are met and more lives are saved. The more gender sensitive humanitarian efforts are in light of disaster management and risk reduction, the more resilient and stronger a society will be.





Written by : Judith Garcia Meese