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Reflections on Women and Disaster

11 December 2012 No Comment

Aditi Aryal

Aditi Aryal
Nepal

“Albeit all this, a woman does not give up. She’s not weak. Her responsibilities and duties along with the taunts and abuses have made her strong from the outset.”

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Women During Disaster

Some five years back, South Asia saw disasters, a number of disasters. These disasters germinated starvation, epidemics, political instability, climate change, and violence. Like always, women were heavily victimized.

For example, after the 2010 floods in Pakistan, it was estimated that about 85% of the overall displaced people were women and children. Sexual assault and exposure to water-borne diseases increased. The situation got worse when many of these women, especially pregnant and lactating mothers, refrained from collecting help from male aid workers due to social taboos. A child complained on national news that the strong men would grab whatever food was available and the rest would be left starving.

Records show that, in Pakistan, the rural women who suffered from chronic food insecurity, malnutrition, early and frequent pregnancy increased the rate of maternal mortality after the disaster.

Similar was the case in Bangladesh after Cyclone Sidr in 2007 and the 2004 floods. These calamities inundated several districts, devastating agricultural crops and the livelihoods of millions of people. These annihilating occurrences destructed shelter, lives, livestock, savings, crops, other assets, and various means of livelihood for the affected people. And again, the most affected of them all were women, including their children.

In Nepal and India, the 2008 floods in Koshi damaged lives of other millions of people. While everybody suffered equally in terms of devastation, the psychological impact on women was much more. In Sunsari in Nepal, when people were made to take shelter in classrooms, women were vulnerable to attacks from men, and the situation was not different in Bihar in India.  Some were without food for almost three days because they had been doing all they could to feed their family members.

Women After Disaster

A woman’s role is distinct and very much different from a man’s. A man may be a breadwinner and perform instrumental roles. A woman’s role is much more important as she kneads the bread dough into something edible. Her roles do not end with that. She has her chores to complete, taunts and complaints to endure, and in some cases office work as well. This could be a normal life for many women we see around us. However, talking about women after disasters, they have their work increased tenfold, from trying to cope with the disasters with the heavy effects of tragic instances to continuing with their daily work. Many women lose their husbands and bear the additional role of heading the family – both instrumental and expressive roles.  Others still have to try and make the remains of the previous scenes into homes. It takes years for the women to rebuild their lives and livelihoods and restore the means they once possessed.

Albeit all this, a woman does not give up. She’s not weak. Her responsibilities and duties along with the taunts and abuses have made her strong from the outset. There have always been strong women at times of disasters. And there still are. If she is not supported, she’ll still show what she can do on her own. If she is encouraged, her achievements will be epic.

A washed-out bridge, damaged from flooding, is shown in Pakistan Aug. 5, 2010, from a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter en route to deliver humanitarian assistance supplies. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

She Made It Through

In rural Bangladesh where floods are common occurrences, Saheema has learnt to preserve foods, raise her house on stilts, and use radio to receive flood warnings. She is glad to know how to live with floods now. She’s managed to save her family, children, belongings, and animals. Her children are lucky too for they have a mother who can teach them how to survive a disaster. Also, Saheena has organized a committee of women to be prepared for floods. Efforts like these have saved numerous lives and empowered women.

Evidence of women and girls from all walks of life who are making a difference continues to emerge. This is just one reference. Women are leading efforts in many communities across the globe. Though seldom recognized, their work saves lives, communities, and families. Mariam Bibi, a mother of four in a remote village of Badin district, Sindh province in Pakistan, is another example, who, with a small support of UNFAO-supplied sunflower seed and fertilizer, could not only restore her 2010 and 2011 flood-devastated livelihoods, but could also come to the podium in front of mostly men saying that women are not only meant to work inside their houses, but if given an opportunity, they can shape up their lives and livelihoods on their own. Women in rural Nepal are no less. They’ve always stood at the forefront to rebuild their lives whenever hit by a disaster, more sturdily than men sometimes.

In the end, like Hillary Clinton mentioned in the third annual Women in the World Summit held in New York in March 2012, “What does it mean to be a woman in the world? It means never giving up. It means getting up, working hard, and putting a country or a community on your back.”

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