This trend is prevalent worldwide. The Asian Development Bank’s 2013 study found that women had higher mortality rates than men in major disasters in Asia. Of those killed in the April 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, 91% were women, and 67% of the casualties in Aceh of Indonesia in the 2004 tsunami were women.
Researchers from the London School of Economics and the University of Essex studied major outbreaks in 141 countries around the world from 1981 to 2002. They concluded more women than men died in the disasters.
The Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) also concluded that women are more at risk from disasters than men. The findings were published in its 2019 report ‘The Hindu Kush Himalayan Assessment’ which analysed statistics from the 2015 and of other natural disasters of the last few decades in the Himalaya.
This reflects on the Women’s Resilience Index (WRI) that assesses countries’ capacity for risk reduction in disaster and recovery. Nepal performed poorly scoring only 45.2 out of 100 points in the list compiled by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and ActionAid.
“It’s not that women are more affected in disasters, but their different role in society does lead to more impact,” says Basanta Sapkota of Nepal’s Ministry of Forest and Environment. “Women also have limited access to disaster prevention systems. There is also language barrier.”
ICIMOD’s research also concluded that gender inequality reduces women’s access to early warning systems, and that they are more vulnerable because rescue and management are not targeted at them. Much of the information and decision-making process about early warning systems and pre-disaster rescue is under the purview of men.
Similarly, ADB reports that gender issues have not been adequately addressed in intervening in natural disasters. Lack of access and control for women in post-disaster situations, including shelters, transportation and food, is another major reason for their risk.
There have also been many cases of sexual violence against women in rescue camps post-disasters. Therefore, it is not enough to just tally the total fatalities when discussing the impact of the disaster on women, say experts.
The risk is also heightened by women’s reproductive role: mothers of new-borns or pregnant women also have to care for their babies. Reduction in food productivity, loss of livestock and shortage of water after a disaster also disproportionately affects women.
Climate change expert Ngamindra Dahal says women are also more affected by slow-moving disasters like climate change. In fact, women and children are more at risk in all three phases: pre-, during and post-disasters. In the aftermath of a disaster, women are less likely to find work, and more likely to be responsible for their families.
“Women don’t have much of a role in making a disaster worse, but the impact is greater on them,” says Dahal. “Planning and investment should be focused on women to reduce the impact of disasters and enable them.”
The government has enacted some laws and policies addressing disaster management and preparedness: National Strategy for Disaster Management, Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, and Climate Change Policy. However, they either do not have a clear perspective on gender vulnerabilities, nor programs targeting women at risk.
Increasing women’s participation in training and groups such as rehearsals, rescue teams, and first aid for disaster relief could be a start to bridging this gap.