Women and girls are among the most negatively impacted by disasters: not due to any inherent vulnerability, but as a result of social construction of gender norms and the related power imbalance in which women often have limited access to and control over resources.
Disasters are regularly in the news — from hurricanes to earthquakes to, droughts to chemical explosions — and they are as diverse as their impacts, which can disrupt the economy, the environment, infrastructure, people and livelihoods. No person, country or sector is immune, but the type and degree of impacts are variable. Women and girls are among the most negatively impacted by disasters: not due to any inherent vulnerability, but as a result of social construction of gender norms and the related power imbalance in which women often have limited access to and control over resources.
In most societies, women are responsible for the majority of unpaid domestic and care work. And in many cases, women work a triple shift: productive work in the formal or informal sector; reproductive work associated to the household (cooking, cleaning, providing water and fuel, caring for children, the elderly and the sick); and community management roles (volunteer work in community management). This workload can impede enough time for sleep, and can impact a woman’s health and resilience to shocks and stressors. But add to that other inequalities that women face in terms of access to their human rights in the form of decent paid work, land tenure, health care including sexual and reproductive health, education, water and sanitation, freedom from sexual and other violence, a healthy environment — and the shock of a disaster can be a major setback.
Women’s rights and feminist advocates, activists and researchers have advocated for decades for better data.
A body of research shows the impacts of disaster are differentiated, with particular issues for women that include increased domestic violence and sexual assault in emergency shelters. But gender disaggregated data is still not collected regularly enough to give a full picture of the impacts of disasters on women and girls, not to mention on LGBTIAQ+, indigenous, disabled or older persons, or migrants/refugees.
The hard economic data that is collected in the short-term to measure progress on the expansive commitments of the Sendai and SDG frameworks does not capture many of the risks and impacts that are complex and secondary to the disaster in question, such as job and livelihood loss, displacement, migration, health, infant mortality and food security, and which highly impact women as a result of systemic discrimination. Women’s rights and feminist advocates, activists and researchers have advocated for decades for better data as well as resources to meet gender commitments.
But what about climate change? While not all disasters are related to climate change, (e.g. earthquakes and volcanoes), between 1995 and 2015, 90% of major disasters were caused by 6,457 recorded floods, storms, heat waves, droughts and other weather-related events. And evidence shows that these extreme events are linked and made more severe due to human-induced climate change, magnifying poverty and inequality, bringing the most severe impacts to countries and communities that have contributed the least to it.
Disasters can happen at any scale. And although it is the large-scale, sudden-onset disaster that receives the greatest attention in media and from development and humanitarian action, the small-scale, slow-onset disaster is often months or years in the making — the confluence of multiple events, hazards and human activities. The slow-onset events should be easier to address through interventions and prevent through bold changes in policy and practice. Doing so requires an understanding of the inequitable distribution of power and resources and a willingness to begin to redistribute those resources.
The connection between work happening at the grassroots and global levels is critical.
In addition to collection and analysis of baseline and quantitative data in affected areas, analysing the multiple factors causing slow-onset disasters like drought is critical to be able to address them. It requires direct consultation with women and girls on the ground. The connection between work happening at the grassroots and global levels is critical. People who are most affected by environmental degradation know much better the impacts and potential solutions.
WEDO’s recent work in the Dry Corridor of Central America illustrated the complexities of slow-onset disasters like drought, in an area where the El Nino phenomenon together with years of low or unpredictable rainfall has eroded water and food security, devastating basic food supplies and driving many people to migrate for work (often temporarily, sometimes internally and sometimes internationally — a risky undertaking for many). Many interviewees reported they had too few resources to even attempt to migrate. Recognising the bleak future of community farming, a young couple chose to send their child to the city for an education unavailable in their village, while they remain in the community themselves and lack resources to visit. At the same time, environmental degradation, land concessions and poor governance has exacerbated the climate impacts the region is experiencing.
Women tackling climate change
Together with restricted access to land and resources, to education, to health facilities, to decision-making spaces and the gendered division of labor, these amplify the negative impacts on women. Women have to wake at 3am to wait on line at the existing wells; if wells are not available, they walk hours each way to find a clean source of water. Many wake long before dawn to make tortillas before getting the family ready, then work in the fields all day before returning to prepare dinner. Women heads of households more often rent than own land, and the rented plots of land are several hours’ walk from home, or a long distance from a reliable water source. These coping mechanisms by women are not sustainable. Women have comprehensive ideas, but those require strategic interventions and coherent public policy as called for in both Sendai and the SDGs, along with funds to implement and monitor.
In some cases, efforts to bring renewable energy have negative consequences that can exacerbate drought conditions. One solar farm near Choluteca, Honduras, was built near a community without proper consultation. Trees that maintain the soil and water table were cut, the low-cost energy is being exported rather than locally available,and local people report health issues. Indigenous women are risking their lives to protect their rights by defending their territories, health and way of life in the face of large hydropower projects that disrupt biodiversity and bring displacement. While there is sometimes nominal compensation offered, it is not enough to build a new life or accompanied by public services, and the land, traditions and environmental loss cannot be given a monetary value.
Women have to wake at 3am to wait on line at the existing wells; if wells are not available, they walk hours each way to find a clean source of water.
While socially constructed gender roles can enhance impacts of negative environmental change on women, those roles also put women in a position of having a unique perspective on creative and appropriate solutions. Addressing complex issues that cause environmental problems must incorporate women’s human rights to avoid increasing gender inequality and violence against women and to secure sustainable development for future generations.
In addition to working as environmental and human rights defenders, women lead community projects such as seed banks for locally appropriate seeds, form cooperatives to build capacity and amplify their efforts for agriculture, education and policy change, devise water harvesting projects, and often collaborate with local or national NGOs. But resources are few, so many of the ideas are not fully implemented.
We call out to governments to step up action on gender-responsive implementation of Sendai and the SDGs, and to work with women’s and feminist groups to increase women’s leadership and make women-led solutions visible. Diversity in leadership drives better policy and effective action. Drawing on women’s experience, incorporating women’s human rights and supporting implementation of their solutions will contribute to the prevention of disasters and addressing root causes of disaster risk — and drive progress on gender equality.
This article was published in The Beam #6 — Subscribe now for more.