Women Are Disproportionately Affected By Natural Disasters, And Here’s Why

by Molly McLaughlin


A woman removes debris in the aftermath of the 1985 Mexican earthquake

The number of women killed by the earthquake in Mexico City on September 19, 2017 is almost double that of men. Of the 198 deaths in the capital, only 71 are men, while 127 are women, according to the latest figures provided by the city government. Researchers hypothesize that this disparity is largely due to the fact that the quake occurred around 1pm in the afternoon and affected mostly private homes, with women inside. In fact, women have disproportionately suffered again and again during different natural disasters, especially in low-income countries.

Globally, women and children are 14 times more likely to die or be injured during a disaster than men. In Mexico, women were directly affected by the earthquake due to the sharp gender divide when it comes to domestic duties, as 95% of domestic employees are women and would therefore have been home in the afternoon. Similarly, many women remain at home as housewives rather than entering the formal workforce. This tragedy was intensified by the collapse of a factory with a majority female workforce in the Obrera neighbourhood of Mexico City, causing about 20 fatalities. Questions have been raised over the safety and working conditions within the factory, where many of the workers were allegedly undocumented immigrants. Mexico is susceptible to natural disasters, but these gender imbalances exacerbate the risk for women.

FEMAMeulaboh db5e9An Indonesian women and child that lost everything during the 2004 tsunami

In the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, 53% of victims were female, and in the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, four times as many women died as men. In Bangladesh, when the 1991 cyclone destroyed thousands of homes, 90% of those killed were women. These disparities have been proven to be largely due to cultural factors, rather than any biological or demographic biases. In Indonesia, far fewer women are taught how to swim, and in Bangladesh, women followed social norms which required that they wait at home for instructions from their husbands rather than fleeing. Additionally, women in developing countries are often excluded from planning and organising for disasters, resulting in a lower level of awareness about how to protect themselves.

In the aftermath of natural disasters, women continue to suffer. Sexual assault, human trafficking and child marriage have been measured to increase after disasters in poorer countries, as well as hunger, lack of education, and homelessness. Men are often forced to travel to search for jobs or fight in conflicts, leaving women vulnerable at home as single parents. Women are severely affected when deprived of hygienic sanitary facilities, which can lead to infections and complications during pregnancy. Overall, women are more likely to be poor and discriminated against for social reasons, which leads to heightened vulnerability during times of crisis. Many of these problems are present during everyday life, but are exacerbated by hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

FEMAKatrina ba609Hurricane Katrina disaster victim Stella Keasley searches for anything salvageable from the wreckage of her home

The negative effects on women are not confined to the global south. While statistics from recent Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma are not available yet, studies of the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 found that women in New Orleans faced higher rates of violence and sexual assault during the immediate aftermath of the disaster and even a year later. This was partly due to the fact that many low-income women were displaced from their homes, staying in shelters and even on the streets. The hurricane also had a disproportionate effect on wages and workforce participation for women, especially women of colour, the effects of which were felt for years after the event.

However, by understanding the specific role of women in the recovery process and targeting resources towards them, aid providers and governments could make a significant difference. In contrast with the 1985 earthquake, Mexican women in 2017 were more fully involved in the recovery efforts, searching the debris, distributing vital supplies, and pariticipating in decision-making. It has been found that emergency disaster aid, like food, is most effective when it is directly given to women, as they are able to effectively use it to care for their families, especially due to the prevalence of single mothers. In countries where traditional gender roles are prevalent, it is often only women who can safely and respectfully help other women. In fact, women’s traditional roles as caregivers can be used to their advantage in these situations. By ensuring women are informed, supported and mobilized in disaster zones, suffering can be significantly reduced. If given the opportunity, women around the world are a force to be reckoned with.

Images via FEMA Photo Library

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