Although they level widespread and often inescapable destruction, natural disasters do not affect all people equally. More marginalized populations — including women — tend to be disproportionately negatively impacted when calamities like hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes strike.
Researchers at the London School of Economics and the University of Essex surveyed data from 141 countries over a 21-year period and found that natural disasters kill more women than men or kill women. According to the report, the disproportionate death tolls can be explained by the fact that “natural disasters exacerbate previously existing patterns of discrimination that render females more vulnerable to the fatal impact of disasters.”
The more than 7,300 people who have been killed by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook Nepal on April 25 quake so far are pretty evenly split between genders. But development organizations and government agencies there have already begun to address some of the myriad ways in which women might be more likely to die from the natural disaster itself and health and safety issues it left in its wake.
Aid organizations are increasingly incorporating what the British Department for International Development has called a “double disaster” for women when managing disaster relief efforts. Organizations like the United Nations have put a special focus on the ways women may be worse off than men or even children as they try to rebuild their homes and regain their footing after the Nepal earthquake.
Here are some of the ways that a natural disaster can be especially treacherous for women:
Some studies have suggested that women die at a rate up to 14 times higher than men, boys, or even girls when disaster strikes. That’s partially because are often adversely impacted by social and cultural traditions that limit their mobility.
The “excess deaths among females” after an earthquake in the Indian state of Maharashtra have been attributed to the fact that women were mostly in their homes while men were out working in the fields where they were less susceptible to being trapped beneath rubble. A study of the cyclone that ravaged much of Bangladesh in 1991 suggested that many women and children perished in their homes because as they waited for men to return home in order to make evacuation decisions. A study by Oxfam found that four times as many women died after the Indian ocean tsunami in some villages — in part, because women were less likely to know how to swim or climb trees to save themselves.
Women tend to be less aware of how to protect themselves, since they are often left out of the planning process when it comes to emergency preparedness and tend to have less knowledge about disaster occurrences.
In Nepal, the United Nations is already working with other agencies and the government to ensure that women and children have access to what it has called “culturally appropriate, secure, sanitary, user-friendly and gender appropriate” toilets and washing facilities. Natural disasters in South Asia have often been followed by perennial rashes and urinary tract infections among women were not able to properly clean or dry the rags the use while menstruating. If left untreated, they can poseserious health risks, especially to pregnant women and their fetuses.
Many people in Nepal who have not yet seen much in the way of relief efforts are sleeping in the open air, while others have sought shelter into tents or makeshift housing. These sorts of conditions leave women vulnerable to sexual violence, which sadly, often increases in the wake of natural disasters. After an earthquake wrought havoc on much of Haiti in 2010, what many described as an “epidemic” of sexual violence broke out. According to one study, 14 percent of those polled said that a member of their household became a victim of sexual violence after the earthquake.
For some women in Nepal, the risks of a practice called chaupadi which bids them to isolate themselves during their menstrual cycles might compounded by the destruction as they move into spaces that are physically more dangerous or where they are vulnerable to sexual violence or trafficking away while separated from their communities.
The United Nations estimates that up to 15,000 people — mostly women and girls — are trafficked out of Nepal to work as prostitutes or bonded laborers every year.
Aid organizations in the country are concerned that traffickers might capitalize on the devastation caused by the earthquake by posing as aid workers.
“This is the time when the brokers go in the name of relief to kidnap or lure women,” Sunita Danuwar of the Kathmandu-based NGO Shakti Samuha said. “We are distributing assistance to make people aware that someone might come to lure them. We are getting reports of [individuals] pretending to go for rescuing and looking at people.”
Existing health conditions and pregnancies are further complicated by natural disasters like the Nepal earthquake which has caused hospitals to become packed — even though many of them lack electricity or basic equipment to treat patients.
“Many women lose access to essential reproductive health services and give birth in appalling conditions without access to safe delivery services and lifesaving care,” Priya Marwa of the United Nations said, estimating that some 50,000 Nepalese women could be among the earthquake’s survivors.
With limited access to medical facilities, women face complications that can cause obstructed labor, or even death. Their babies have increased chances of developing respiratory complications and infections.
These risks may well be playing out in Nepal right now.
“Outside in the fields surrounding the hospital were hundreds of patients who were in the hospital when the earthquake hit,” Matt Darvas of the Christian charity World Vision said in a statement two days after the earthquake hit. They are afraid to go inside with aftershocks continuing. Several women gave birth in the sun outside on the grass lying on nothing more than ‘yoga mat.’”