Women and disaster

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Publication Date: 
Wed, 2010-03-31

Adapted from Not Just Victims: Women in Emergencies and Disasters from Women and Health Care Reform

After the recent earthquake in Haiti, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) made headline news when it began to distribute “women only” food coupons. By distributing some aid exclusively to women, they were in fact trying to make sure as many people as possible received it. Women tended to be responsible for their household’s food supplies, the WFP explained, and were losing out on supplies when young men pushed to the front of lines or swarmed aid trucks.

This may have been the first example many people had ever seen of accounting for sex or gender differences in disaster situations. Over the last 15 years, however, the body of work on gender and disaster has grown, as we recognize that looking at sex and gender can help identify and prepare for different strengths and vulnerabilities in times of crisis.

Why should we think about women in emergencies?

Women and men, girls and boys may go through the same disaster, but they are likely to experience it differently. Different health risks, for instance: Women are more physically vulnerable to the effects of heat waves, and heavily pregnant women may need special transportation or other supports during emergencies.

Gender roles and stereotypes likewise affect the experiences of women and men during disasters. Women are frequently assigned to tend the ill and injured because they are expected to be natural nurturers, or because they are the overwhelming majority of paid caregivers. Men are expected to be physically stronger than women and therefore will more often be called upon to engage in hard labour during emergencies. Gender can also place women and men at different risks of disaster. The SARS epidemic disproportionately affected women and their families, because there are more women working in the health care system.

In the wake of disasters, women’s experiences are also quite different from those of men. In paid or unpaid realms, women offer more sustained emotional support to disaster victims, as volunteers, as paid workers and as family members. Economic relief and recovery packages often do not reflect women’s dominance in informal, part-time and home-based labour where they generate essential income. The economic impacts on women can be severe when the loss of a home also means the loss of working supplies, work spaces, equipment, inventory, markets and credit lines. Not only are women differently affected than men by disasters, but also different groups of women will have different needs and will respond differently in the midst of emergencies. For example, the needs of elderly women in remote Métis villages are likely to be very different from the needs of lesbian couples in Toronto if a disaster strikes. Such differences also need to be taken into account in preparing for disasters.

Women at home

Though household roles and responsibilities have certainly changed in recent generations, with more men involved directly in housework and raising children, it is also true that women are overwhelmingly responsible for domestic chores. These roles and responsibilities do not vanish in the event of a disaster. In fact, they often just become much harder to do. Torn by wanting to help in the community and assist neighbours, women also cook for their families and neighbours, care for children, the elderly and other loved ones without their usual equipment and resources.

Because of their roles in the home and community, women are also very knowledgeable about their neighbours. Women know who is most in danger, where they live and what they will need. Research shows that women are quicker to seek out information about hazards and to help their family and communities to prepare for disasters, are more likely to warn others of imminent disaster and to assist in long-term recovery.

Recovering from an emergency or disaster may continue long after the immediate threat or destruction has passed. Women’s psychological stress can manifest as anxiety and depression, while some male partners may cope by being abusive. Calls to domestic violence centres and housing continue for months following disasters.

Women on the job

In the paid workforce, away from home or in home-based businesses, women bring critical income to their families. Their ability to continue or resume paid work depends in great part on how well disaster mitigation takes women’s concerns into account. If decision-makers do not consider child care a priority, many women cannot return to their external jobs.

For women whose jobs are to provide emergency response, there are also particular concerns. After the SARS crisis in Toronto, nurses shared stories of having ill-fitting equipment that was not adapted to their size and shape. Military women have expressed feeling pulled in many directions by their desire to do their work, while simultaneously worrying about family — more so than the men in the same military jobs. Human resource policy and practice in emergency management should be designed to accommodate employees’ family responsibilities to ensure that women and men have appropriate family leave, child and elder care, and opportunities for part-time employment or respite.

Women in the community

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