Women and children are particularly affected by disasters, accounting for more than 75% of displaced persons.
Gender Roles and Inequality
In addition to the immediate effects of a natural disaster, women are vulnerable to reproductive and sexual health problems, as well as increased rates of sexual and domestic violence. Moreover, established gender roles often mean that women become the primary caretakers for those affected by disasters – including children, the injured, the sick and the elderly, which substantially increases their workload and emotional burden. A woman’s pre-disaster familial responsibilities are magnified and expanded by the onset of a disaster or emergency, with significantly less support and resources. Women play a central role within the family, securing relief from assistance providers, meeting the immediate survival needs of family members and managing temporary relocation.
In the developing world, many women continue to practice traditional roles as the primary family and home caretaker. Many women do not earn a wage, and those who do earn significantly less than their male counterparts. It is estimated that women perform 70% of all unpaid work in the developing world. The majority of the world’s small-scale farmers are women, and given their traditional roles, women in developing nations are also often the primary natural resource users (e.g. gather firewood, collect water). Their dependence on the land, coupled with their typically unpaid labour, makes them especially vulnerable to any changes in their environment.
Gender inequality in social, economic and political spheres often results in vast differences between men and women in emergencies. These inequalities are often manifested in household decisions about the use of relief assets, voluntary relief and recovery work, access to evacuation shelter and relief goods, employment in disaster planning, relief and recovery programs, among others. Examining relief activities through a gender lens is therefore critical to delivering the most effective and well-rounded humanitarian response possible.
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV)
While SGBV continues to be prevalent in day-to-day life around the world, in emergencies social systems and norms of behaviour are often suspended or broken down altogether. A crisis increases the likelihood of such violence occurring and threatens the physical safety of women and girls. Even after crises have ended, violence against women and girls may continue at heightened levels. Separation from family during an emergency makes women and girls especially vulnerable to abuse because of their gender, age or reliance on others for assistance or safe passage. While women and girls are the primary targets of SGBV, it should be noted that young boys and men might also be victims of such abuse.
Humanitarian programs addressing SGBV include both reactive and preventative components -- implementing measures to keep women safe in wake of a humanitarian crisis, while providing services to support victims of SGBV with healthcare, psychological support and other types of assistance.
Pregnancy & Reproductive Health:
Pregnant women, or those with infants, are a group of particular concern. Given that healthcare facilities may be destroyed or overwhelmed with more urgent cases in the wake of a humanitarian emergency, ensuring that pregnant women receive the necessary care is a priority in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. This includes ensuring that safe, private spaces are created in which women can give birth under the supervision of a birth attendant, providing women with baby clothes and warm blankets in anticipation of childbirth, making available sterile tools for childbirth and providing shelter for women with infants.
For women who are not pregnant but are of childbearing age, ensuring that women have access to necessary sanitary products is also key to their wellbeing.
Particularly in regions where women maintain a visible standard of modesty for cultural or religious reasons, providing appropriate attire that will allow them to function comfortably within their community is critical. Ensuring women have the clothes they deem appropriate will allow them to travel in public to collect aid supplies, care for their children, and participate fully in other aspects of the recovery process.