What women need in post-disaster situations
Studies show that natural disasters tend to lower life expectancy more in women than in men.
The recent Bihar floods and flood alert warnings in Kerala are just the latest in a long line of natural disasters that periodically strike in India, leaving behind a trail of devastation. The focus afterwards is on assessing the loss of lives and economic cost and, of course, rehabilitation. But though it is well known, the gender dimension of such disasters is not emphasised enough.
Studies show that natural disasters tend to lower life expectancy more in women than in men. This has to do with their lack of physical ability to get to safety, their sacrificing their safety for their children and elders, and their cumbersome clothing. Apart from this, in the aftermath of a disaster, women are much more vulnerable to trafficking, rape, and violence. After the Nepal earthquake, there were reports of women and children being preyed upon by traffickers. Given the inadequate socio-economic resources available to them, women also find it more difficult to rebuild their lives after disasters. They have limited livelihood avenues, little access to loans, and little knowledge of relief and rehabilitation available to them.
The psychological stress they face from witnessing devastation and seeing their families in danger or being killed is rarely addressed. In fact, in India, trauma counselling after natural disasters is not seen as a priority nor is trained personnel easily available. In such situations, her access to economic and educational resources gets even more restricted. Then, there are the problems that women face in camps away from their homes after disasters. Here, they are not only faced with danger in the form of predators but also suffer from hygiene problems. After the Kerala floods last year, despite the efforts of the state government, women suffered due lack of privacy and compromised reproductive health.
Our disaster management does not take into account practical ways to help women overcome some or all of these issues. The first is to engage with the woman on her needs. From this will flow support on rehabilitation, access to finance, sanitation and legal help. She will also need psychological support. The task of rebuilding their lives in unfamiliar surroundings is overwhelming for many women who have not had any exposure to the outside world or the educational and social tools to deal with this.
There are services available for women in post-disaster situations, but the problem is that in many cases they neither know about these, and, if they do, they have no means to access them. In disaster rehabilitation and response efforts, a lot of programmes by different organisations are being directed to benefit women. But there remains a wide gap between the availability of services provided to women and women’s ability to access these services. When and if she is able to get hold of governmental assistance, she is vulnerable to being exploited by touts or even members of her own family who can either trick or coerce her into parting with it.
In the case of the elderly women, all these factors are magnified. But unfortunately, after each disaster, women are at best subjected to ad hoc measures. They are not involved in relief efforts and hence left out of all decision-making. This was so even in literate and progressive Kerala.
Let us be clear, natural disasters are likely to increase thanks to climate change. Undoubtedly, our response mechanisms have improved. But it is still to become more holistic and look at the specific needs of women. I wonder what has happen to the women displaced in the Kedarnath landslide, the Kerala floods, the Bihar floods. Where are they now and how have they rebuilt their broken lives?
A documentation of this would be a good place to begin addressing this issue more seriously.