Where women and climate change meet: the gendered impact of natural disasters

Mar 8, 2016Issue 3 - March 2016, Issue 3 Commentary

By Ignacia Simonetti

The frequency of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, droughts and typhoons, has increased significantly over the last twenty years. According to a 2013 Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters report, the number of environmental catastrophes tripled between 2000 and 2009. This is significant as natural disasters kill thousands of people, disrupt livelihoods, destroy resources and infrastructure, and exacerbate economic and power inequalities within communities. Furthermore, the impact of natural disasters is not gender neutral.

 Source: EM-DAT Global natural disaster occurrence and impact: 1980–2007

Source: EM-DAT Global natural disaster occurrence and impact: 1980–2007

While women’s vulnerability to natural disasters has been amply demonstrated in academic, policy and advocacy studies, the extent to which women’s roles as principal caregivers and their economic dependence compromise their mobility and options for recovery, is still not fully appreciated. Additionally, the secondary effects of disaster impacts, especially gender-based violence remains understudied. Though the consequences may not be immediately visible, the fact is that gender inequalities make women and girls more vulnerable to disasters than men.

Affected populations: women and economically marginalized communities

A ten-year review, conducted by United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) in 2015 found that climate-related disasters “now account for over 80% of all disaster events.” While susceptibility to climate change is determined partly by geographic, social, political and socioeconomic factors, growing evidence shows the impact is felt more pronouncedly in developing countries, especially among poor communities as marginalized populations have fewer economic resources to anticipate and recover from the impacts of disasters. Pre-disaster conditions, such as the gendered division of labor and control over assets, expose women and girls disproportionately to risk.

Despite improvements in reporting mechanisms, loss and damage appraisals are commonly recorded in terms of productive resources, usually owned by men. This lack of sex-disaggregated data thus has made post-disaster gender inequalities almost invisible. Markedly, in 2014, only 12% of the United Nations humanitarian funding for crisis response was allocated to programs with gender components.

Photo credit: Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT.

Photo credit: Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT.

The 2014 Global Humanitarian Assistance Report highlights that the share of humanitarian funding allocated to programs “focusing primarily on, or contributing significantly to, gender equality fell from 22% in 2013 to 12% in 2014”. With aid coming mainly from international agencies, donor accountability needs to be improved in order to assess whether even these modest gender commitments are being met. While a “gender marker” was introduced within the UN system to track funding dedicated to enhancing gender equality, since 2012, the percentage of “uncoded humanitarian assistance has remained high and constant at around 60% in 2012, 2013 and 2014”. What is more, only one third of donors used the marker in 2014.

More women than men die in natural disasters

Disaster mortality rates are not gender neutral, either. A 2007 study by Neumayer and Plumper found that natural disasters kill, on average, more women than men, especially in situations where women’s economic mobility is constrained. A review of extreme weather events conducted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women’s Environment & Development Organization (WEDO) found that during the 2004 Asian tsunami 70% of the fatalities were women. Contrary to common belief that biological and physiological differences explain the disparity in disaster mortality, evidence points to discrimination in access to economic resources, such as money, cars and boats, traditional gender roles, and a breakdown of social order in the aftermath of a disaster, as the most common reasons why women are more adversely affected by natural disasters.

According to disaster sociologist Elaine Enarson, the lack of control over economic resources translates into less “access to savings or credit, employments with social protection and/or marketable job skills.” These assets are crucial in the aftermath of natural disasters, as they become valuable tools to survive interruptions in income, markets and relocation strategies. With the breakdown of health care infrastructure, women’s caregiving responsibilities also increase.

Simultaneously, women and girls are especially vulnerable to become victims of gender-based violence (GBV), such as domestic violence, sex trafficking, forced marriage and sexual coercion. Evidence suggests an increase in the level of GBV in the context of natural disasters. For instance, in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the number of sexual assaults increased due to a lack of public lighting sources and no police presence in the IDP camps. It is by addressing women’s vulnerability at an early stage–their lack of economic resources and a social support network—that humanitarian actors can contribute to further improve women’s recovery and coping mechanisms.

The need for more gender-disaggregated data 

Though not sufficient, recent efforts to overcome gender-blind practices have lead to an improvement in the collection of gender-disaggregated data. The availability of new statistics has prompted the creation of new global measurements, such as the Gender Inequality Index (GII), that was introduced in 2010. Developed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), this index was designed to expose the differences between women’s and men’s political and economic achievements. The index results range from 0 and 1, with 0 being 0% of inequality and 1 being 100% inequality between women and men.

Photo credit: aheavens via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: aheavens via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Exploratory data analysis for 187 countries (Simonetti, 2015) of the composite Index was able to capture interesting correlations between the advancement of gender equality and the impact of climate related events. The robust estimations, which included data on public aid, conflict intensity and exposure to environmental factors, found a positive correlation between the number of people affected by droughts and an increase of the Gender Inequality Index. However, the lack of any relationship among exposure to other environmental factors such as earthquakes, floods and cyclones, suggests the existing reporting and accountability systems are not successfully capturing the gendered impact of climate change. This becomes especially relevant as measurements included in the model are taken upon populations living already in hazard-prone areas.

Additionally, the models uncovered a negative relationship between aid and the GII, which calls for additional research on the efficiency and distribution patterns of humanitarian assistance. An increase in the amount of aid was expected to lower the overall score of the Gender Inequality Index, approaching equal achievement for both men and women. However, the regression outcomes suggested the contrary effect, especially when grouping different types of aid together.

Without sex-disaggregated data, all efforts to address and combat the impact of climate change on populations will remain, at best, only partially successful. Though more countries than ever have set up national disaster statistical offices, more attention needs to be paid to improving the quality and accuracy of the collected data. The preliminary results outlined above, though not conclusive, point to the need of ensuring humanitarian aid is not furthering gender inequality in emergency contexts. The negative correlation between the Gender Inequality Index and capital-related indicators suggests that either existing reporting mechanisms are flawed or gender considerations are highly neglected in humanitarian interventions.

Understanding gender roles within communities will go a long way to effectively distribute humanitarian aid towards women’s needs. The gendered division of labor for instance, creates social conditions that restrain women from accessing and controlling productive resources. These “normal” pre-disaster settings should also be reflected in early warning systems and preparedness programs. The next important step is an official acknowledgment of the high cost that climate change imposes in women in particular. The development of policies that further gender-equality are necessary to overcome those conditions that put women increasingly at risk during natural disasters.

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