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The impact of natural disasters affects women more than men

Most at risk | Nikhat Sattar

PAKISTAN is planning to use radar technology for flood and rain forecasts, and disaster-risk insurance plans are being prepared. Recently, the chief minister of Sindh requested removal of unapproved infrastructure from the Indus to lower risk of flooding. As the summer approaches, floods could become a reality.

Soon after the devastation caused by the floods of 2010, it became clear that, while technical systems for early warning and disaster-proof structures were necessary, it was also important to strengthen people economically and socially. Vulnerability to such impacts was one of the main causes of the massive losses. If losses are to be minimised in future, a reduction of this vulnerability is necessary.

Vulnerabilities include conditions and circumstances, such as age, gender, education, race, health, access to facilities and power dynamics, of an individual or group that makes it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard. On the other side, the capacity to resist, or to recover from such a hazard can increase, or decrease, over time and with changing conditions.

Research shows that people living in places that have poor development indicators, such as low literacy, poor nutrition levels, lack of access to health and education, lack of assets and poor infrastructure, are far more vulnerable to disaster impacts. Disasters occur frequently enough in the developed world, but when compared to developing countries, the distribution of deaths and injuries is remarkably uneven.

There is also a disproportionate impact on the weaker sections of the community, mainly women, the elderly and children. A statistical study of 141 countries found that women were more likely to die than men in countries with low social and economic rights for the former. As their empowerment grew, this effect disappeared. It is the inequity in daily lives, and not just during the disaster, that contributes to the high vulnerability of women and the concomitant risks that they face.

The impact of natural disasters affects women more than men.

Their vulnerability has also been linked to the fact that they have less access to skills and assets, information and decision-making powers. In addition, they are not considered part of the power structure, even at the household level. They suffer material losses, such as kitchen utensils, that are very small and therefore invisible. They are less able, or take longer, to recover and rehabilitate.

Though natural calamities do not discriminate between genders, their impacts become discriminatory. Women are considered unworthy of being provided with the knowledge and information that they could use to save lives and prevent injuries. This makes the situation worse, because it is usually women who take responsibility for the ailing and children.

Ownership of assets is critical to the empowerment of women, and affects their bargaining power. Studies in South Asia have shown that women owning land could negotiate their right to work for income, mobility and avoid spousal violence.

Women are able to increase the productivity of their assets, from meeting basic needs of food and water, to savings and credit, agricultural productivity, crop diversification and preventive health for the entire family. By putting assets in the hands of women, it is possible to reduce poverty and improve the overall health and education of children.

A small-scale, pilot study conducted by this writer for PILER has given interesting results. The study was based on discussions with groups of women in rural areas around Dadu, Umerkot, Badin and Sanghar, the four districts that have been most affected by floods. After the floods, the first three groups had been provided with assets, skills and both assets and skills respectively. The fourth group, in Sanghar, had received neither.

The women were asked questions related to their past and current incomes, decision-making, sense of empowerment, bargaining power, inclusiveness in the community, education levels and perceived capacity to handle future disasters and their impact. It was found that ownership of even small assets, such as goats and sewing machines, provided women with a sense of empowerment and ownership, giving them a position within their family and community.

Skills such as stitching or embroidery raised income levels, even for the illiterate, but the best equipped were women who had obtained assets such as cultivable land and skills such as the ability to market their products. In all three groups, those who were even slightly educated were more confident of their enhanced ability to face future calamities. Lowest on the scale were women who had not received either skills training or assets.

While such research should be further expanded, there is enough evidence to convince policymakers and development planners to integrate asset building and skill endowment as part and parcel of disaster-risk reduction programmes, as well as overall social development.

The writer is a development professional.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2015

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