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Philippines

Why we must engage women and children in disaster risk management

Monica Vidili's picture

students in Bislig Elementary School in Leyte Province, Philippines

Disasters hit the poorest the hardest. Poor people are not only more vulnerable to climate-related shocks, but they also have fewer resources to prevent, cope with, and adapt to disasters. The poor tend to receive less support from family, community and financial systems, and even have less access to social safety nets, as a recent World Bank report explains.

So, yes, disasters can discriminate on the same lines that societies discriminate against people.

Disasters tend to discriminate along generational and gender lines, as well. Several studies analyzing the impact of disasters have revealed that women and children have greater risks to their survival and recovery in the aftermath of natural disasters. The vulnerability of women and children to natural disasters can be further aggravated by other elements of discrimination such as race, poverty, and disability.

During the 2017 Hurricane Harvey in the U.S., many women—especially women of color—decided to not evacuate risk areas despite all the warnings. Why? All over the world, women and girls are overwhelmingly tasked, personally and professionally, with caring for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. So, simple life-saving decisions, like discerning whether to evacuate a disaster area, can become a difficult choice.

Poverty and gender norms shape basic survival capabilities as well. For example, according to an Oxfam survey, four times as many women than men were killed in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India during the 2004 tsunami, because men were taught how to swim and climb trees at young ages, while women were not.

Access to food and nutritional conditions also determine people’s capacities to cope with disasters. Mercy Corps reports that women and men tend to adopt different resilience strategies during droughts in the Sahel region of Africa—and reducing food intake is one of them. In South and Southeast Asia, 45% to 60% of women of reproductive age are below their normal weight, and 80% of pregnant women have iron deficiencies. During food shortages, women are more likely to suffer from malnutrition because they have specific nutritional needs while pregnant or breast feeding. Women also sometimes consume fewer calories to give priority to men and children.