Conflict Resolution Studies Faculty Articles

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Office of Women in Development, U.S. Agency for International Development


Women, natural diasasters


Although women play crucial parts in disaster preparedness, mitigation, and recovery, their roles in disasters are often overlooked or ignored. However, history shows that when disasters strike, women sometimes form spontaneous associations to assist relief and recovery efforts. At other times, women's organizations direct their resources for disaster relief and recovery. Women's organizations also partner with international disaster assistance agencies to expedite relief efforts. Are women more vulnerable to disasters? What are women's capabilities for responding to disasters? What can international organizations do to integrate women more effectively into disaster planning and recovery? Vulnerabilities and Risks The circumstances of women's lives determine how they are affected by disasters and their options for responding. Poor people are generally at greater risk during natural disasters, and women are disproportionately represented among the poor. Lack of transportation prevents poor households from moving themselves and their possessions out of harm's way. Poor families may not learn about impending disasters or evacuation plans because of illiteracy or the absence of telephones, radios, and televisions in their lives. The location of poor neighborhoods and inferior construction materials used to build he image is familiar: Women and their children weeping amidst the wreckage of their homes and communities, destroyed and forever changed by forces of nature beyond anyone's control. But this dramatic picture tells only one small part of the story. After the television crews depart, women are often the unsung heroines, picking up the pieces and going forward with the painstaking process of rebuilding lives. homes for the poor are other reasons for greater vulnerability. The prolonged drought that plagued northeastern Kenya during the early 1990s killed much of the livestock on which the population subsisted. The result was widespread displacement, as people moved to towns in search of relief supplies. The poorest households, most of which were female-headed, settled in displaced persons camps outside the towns. When heavy rains flooded the same region in 1997-1998, these households lost their meager possessions and were displaced again. Cultural practices, such as a requirement that women be escorted in public by male relatives, can increase women's vulnerability in disasters. For example, during the recurrent Bangladesh floods, many women drowned as a result of their refusal to leave their homes alone. During Disasters, Women Take the Lead… In spite of their high exposure to risk during disaster, women time and again are often key players after disaster strikes. This is often the result of women translating skills acquired through their daily routines into invaluable disaster assistance. For example, drawing on experience gained from managing large extended households, individual women have turned their homes into feeding centers and shelters for displaced