When thinking about earthquakes, storms, volcanic eruptions, or other natural disasters, people are reminded of their fundamental vulnerability before the destructive potential of nature. However, have you ever considered that these events and their implications could be gendered? Spoiler alert, they are.
Indeed, statistics show that natural disasters usually disproportionately and negatively impact women. When Cyclone Gorky touched Bangladesh in 1991, causing around 140,000 deaths, 14 women were killed for every male victim. 70% of 250,000 fatalities registered during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 were women. When Mexico City was hit by an earthquake in 2017, 127 out of 198 victims were women and the list goes on. Moreover, studies show that violence against women spikes in the aftermath of natural disasters. For example, the year following Hurricane Katrina saw the daily rates of gender-based violence in Mississippi almost quadruple.
The consensus emerging from the study of such events is that these gender gaps derive from social differences rather than biological factors such as different physical strength or capacity between individuals. For example, many cultures discourage women’s participation in physical activity, which has proven fatal, especially in water-related disasters: countless women drown in floods and tsunamis because they do not know (and were not allowed to learn) how to swim. Women’s ability to seek shelter during an emergency may also be obstructed by traditional garments which are common in many regions.
The relegation of women to the home is often a major factor in mortality rates. Many women refuse to abandon their homes during evacuations because they want to protect the cornerstone of their family or feel bound by customary obligations to wait for instructions from men (understood as guardians) whether to leave or not. Women are also more likely to be caught in collapsing homes for the simple reason that they are much more relegated to the domestic sphere than men. Moreover, more women are engaged in informal employment than men, making them more susceptible to loss of employment in the event of a calamity.
In the aftermath of natural disasters, existing inequalities are usually intensified, as women are expected to rebuild livelihoods and recreate destroyed social structures. In this way, certain countries see an increase in child marriage after natural disasters as well as an abandonment of schooling for many girls. Women are also more exposed to gender-based violence, as they are often left homeless and living in dangerous and exposed situations, especially if they end up alone. The death of men, in patriarchal societies, may leave women without guardians and sources of income, leading to increased poverty, vulnerability, and violence. This is exacerbated by the fact that law enforcement agencies have lesser resources available to offer support since they are focused on reconstruction and redevelopment. And the list goes on.
Natural disasters have always represented the ultimate violence “from above”. As their incidence escapes human control, they are considered a non-discriminating force. However, nowadays it is irresponsible and unrealistic to continue believing in the unbiased destructive force of these episodes. While winds, currents and tectonic plates may operate above human control, their implications are widely influenced by our patriarchal societies. In this way, natural disasters are just as subjected to discriminatory dynamics as any other phenomena.