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Disasters solely occur when a natural hazard harmfully impacts vulnerable people. The severity of the disaster is consequently a reflection of both the affected society and intensity of the catastrophe. In effect, it is difficult to separate the two aspects of female vulnerability – gender and penury, precisely because gender plays a significant role in determining poverty. There are many factors of vulnerability including race, ethnicity, age & disability that result in differential impacts on individuals during disasters, but this papier focuses primarily on the gender vulnerability of women with varied socioeconomic status’. Women appear to be more vulnerable in natural disasters, especially in lower economic countries where old-fashioned gender stereotypes and failed governance are vastly prevalent. Due to the lack of personal safety, food insecurity, severe health impacts and limited access to contributions to decision-making power structures – flooding in both developed and developing countries expose the gender vulnerability of women. The 2011 Cambodia flood, 2007 City of Hull Flood in the United Kingdom, and yearly flooding in Northern Bangladesh highlight how poor and disadvantaged women are more vulnerable to disasters than men due to the conditions that predispose them to harsh disaster ramifications.
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The lack of privacy as a consequence of a disaster exposes women, especially those in poverty to a lack of security and increases their risk of domestic violence. A significant outcome of responsible governments in wealthier nations is that citizens tend to have better access to methods that help both prevent natural disasters becoming a crisis and to overcome them when they do arise. Despite this, to a lesser extent than in developing countries, the vulnerability of women is still prevalent, particularly in aspects that human preparations are not able to control. First world countries are stilled faced with insufficient women shelter availability to meet the needs of the impacted and vulnerable females. During the 1993 Missouri River Floods in the United States, the displacement of near 13,000 (Chanthy & Samchan, 2014) people resulted in a significant 400% increase in the demand for women shelters post-flood (Enarson, 2012). In addition, the lack of privacy during 2004 Whakatane Flood in (Parkinson, 2013) New Zealand saw a tripling in the workload for domestic agencies simultaneously occuring with the doubling of police callouts (Houghton, 2009). Additionally, during the 1990 Charville Flood a social worker stated that the lack of secure housing infrastructure available saw that “human relationships were laid bare […] socially isolated women became more isolated, domestic violence increased, and the core of relationships with family, friends and spouses were exposed” (Dobson, 1994, p11). These are key indications of the needs of women not being met during times of disaster in developed countries despite the country’s claims that resources are being provided. In effect, the vulnerabilities of women are increased during disasters because of factors that they are unable to control whilst striving for survival.
Poverty is a key phenomenon affecting people’s capacity to access adequate self-protection. It is apparent in developing countries that relationship violence amplifies in the wake of disasters. Particularly in female headed-households, the ability of women to create safe conditions when confronted by impending floods and other disasters is depreciated due to long-existing gender disparities (Cannon, 2002). The September 2011 Cambodia flood affected 1,700,000 people, killed 250 and resulted in 50,000 families displaced from the Svang Rieng and Banteay Meanchy provinces (Jensen, 2012). Amongst those that were displaced, many were moved to the safety hill or to temporary makeshift shelters. These over-populated, communal areas often did not have appropriate facilities (Chanthy & Samchan, 2014) to protect the privacy of women, causing many to fear being assaulted by a stranger. In the Svay Rieng safety hill, the lack of sanitation services compelled women to defecate in the bush, placing them in a vulnerable position where they risked being attacked. Furthermore, during the flood husbands and wives often did not earn a sufficient combined salary making it easy for pressure and stress to build up between them. Women claimed that their spouses drank more during the flood, increasing aggressive behaviour towards themselves and their children, citing that “they did not have much to do” (Chanthy & Samchan, 2014, p38). This emphasises how during disasters the lack of resources, privacy and familiarity can result in increased household tensions, inducing violent behaviour. Such domestic violence contributes to the shame that women endure impacting their power in decision making and social involvement regarding food distribution, response and restoration.
The marginalisation of women during flood events is a consequence of their exclusion in executive bodies emanating from the disparity in power relations. Typecast as hapless victims protected and rescued by vigilant men, women are often expected to rely on masculinity in disaster situations and resources primarily provided by male-run institutions (Showalter, 1999). In the City of Hull, despite females making up 32% of the UK Parliament (Browning S, 2019), the 2007 flood saw majority of mothers and wives dealing with the brunt of the aftermath of the flood. During the post-flood recovery period, women were often the primary family member present to “rebuild” the home and obtain resources, yet they had to deal with male-dominated emergency authorities, systems and institutions that were often indifferent to their needs. (Enarson & Fordham, 2001). Moreover, the insufficient relief programs addressing the sanitary and privacy need for menstruation and sexually transmitted diseases emphasise the exposure of women’s hygienic vulnerabilities. The inequality in power relations prevent women from accessing preventative and management mechanisms that could help reduce the effects of floods towards them.
The institutional elements that contribute to the vulnerability of disaster struck women have been mainly a result of gaps in the disaster risk reduction process. When policies are brought into existence in developing countries such as Cambodia and Bangladesh, women are regularly absent from conferences where Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) decisions are being made. Evidently, finalised policies often inadequately represent the women’s needs and converns. During the 2007 Cambodian flood, despite certain NGO’s providing funding and other sources of aid, 18% of Cambodians were not able to access basic sanitation facilities. Clean water and toilet amenities were insufficient, adding to the potential risks women face during childbirth in contaminated environments (. In fact, one lady delivered her child on the safety hill amongst the other residents with simply the support of a traditional midwife, placing both the mother’s and child’s life at risk (Chanthy & Samchan, 2014). The lack of such pivotal resources reinforces that the involvement of women in economic actions in contemporary underdeveloped societies remains unvalued at the national level due to patriarchal systems, traditions and preconceived societal norms. Therefore, these notable vulnerabilities and problems disrupt women’s alleviation efforts and adjustment abilities in hazard mitigation.
In many countries, a woman’s role is to obtain and prepare food for their family members. This responsibility is greatly amplified during floods and post floods, where access to nutritious resources poses challenges. In Cambodia, 90% of those living in poverty reside in the countryside, and 70% of them get their main source of income from agriculture (World Bank, 2019). This form of work is very dependant on monsoon rain seasons and the natural flooding of the Tonle Sap Lake and Mekong River. Women from the town Svang Rieng in particular obtain most of their income and food from agricultural and information sectors of employment, by which are oftentimes the worst affected by disasters. During the 2011 flood, the ruining of fertile agricultural land not only prevented women from growing crops to feed their families, but also hindered them from purchasing food as most of their earnings were obtained from farming. The aftermath of the inundation brought to light a realisation that it was no longer feasible to depend on a sole income earner to run the family as well as work, due to the inflation of food prices and other expenditures. This significantly increased the stress inflicted on women to not only provide for their own needs but for their children’s as well.
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Indeed, as flooding in Bangladesh occurs relatively frequently, the supply of relief material available, especially food is eminently inadequate. After the 2004 flood, the Bangladeshi government acknowledged food insufficiency as an acute problem and the scarce food resources resulted in malnutrition among the flood-affected women. Similarly, in Cambodia the constant flow of water after the 2011 flood affected crop production, and water logging inhibited farmers from being able to harvest their land. To lessen the disruption to the Bangladeshis primary food source and income, many women made Khurma (a sweetmeat dry food made of flour and sugar) and Chanachur (dry food formed using flour) to sell at the local marketplace (Azad, 2013). Despite finding alternative food sources and ways to earn additional income, these two necessities (food and money) remained repeatedly insufficient. A study conducted on 40 female villagers in Phali Dighar (rural Northern Bangladesh) noted that 28 did not even seek aid from the relief centres available (Khondker, 1996). This is not surprising as it enforces the omnipresent absence of trust in third world countries that citizens have towards the government and authority institutions. Among those that did, only 10% were able to receive food assistance. One woman had to make 4 trips before she was able to obtain 3 kilograms of rice, while another lady made 2 trips without getting any food. In addition, villagers remarked that there were only men distributing the relief food that often were not understanding towards their need for more food to feed their large families. A woman stated, “Given the already precarious nutritional state of large numbers of girls and women in Bangladesh … any further increase in discrimination against females in food consumption would have serious consequences,” (Cannon, 2002, p48). The food insecurity women encountered in Bangladesh and Cambodia often caused them physical weakness and illness, consequently impacting their ability to defend themselves and their children, restore households and deal with more intense workloads.
The health impacts of disasters contribute to gender vulnerability as women are responsible for caring for sick family members (Tapsell, 1999) while experiencing physical and psychological flood-related issues themselves. During the City of Hull Flood, the UK government involved local wardens in the evacuation of homes, and distribution of disinfectants and emergency rations (Coulthard, 2007). Despite the government’s provision of sanitation resources and coping mechanisms, women were often required to stay in their house looking after the family, while the men went to work. The damp walls, cold conditions, and contaminated water in the houses increases the psychological stress women felt, as they feared members falling sick, getting bitten by snakes or drowning. When household members did fall ill, women were responsible for transporting them to health centres, which was often challenging, as there were risks of contracting water-borne infections. Moreover, 82.4% of UK primary school teachers are female so when flooding occurs, they not only are tasked with caring for their family but often perform “beyond their job description” (Convery, Carroll, Balogh, 2015, p.154) in schools. Evidence of the increased working hours indicated negative impacts on the health of teachers and ability to perform their normal functions (Convery, Carroll, Balogh, 2015). In some cases, prolonged care for family and students resulted in anxiety and depression that lasted for months after the flood. The energy required to prepare, respond and recover from the flood affected women biologically, physically and mentally and such health burdens are seldom acknowledged.
It is apparent that disadvantaged females are more vulnerable to disasters then males due to societal norms that predispose them to profound disaster impacts. This is increasingly prevalent in developing countries where women have more of a responsibility for the privacy, security and well being of their family, despite they themselves being less respected in such communities. This results in a cascading impact on their safety, health and ability to obtain food – factors that are difficult to change as a result of their underrepresentation in decision-making bodies. Acknowledging the vulnerabilities of women in their distinct roles in both developed and developing countries would enable the establishment of suitable DRR programs and position women to be able to protect themselves and their families adequately from disaster situations (Mehta, 2007, p.2).
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