The past decade has seen natural disasters on an unprecedented scale: “Hundred-year” floods are hitting Western Europe and India every two or three years; hurricane and tornadoes of extraordinary strength are ravaging every continent; agriculture systems from Somalia to Texas are collapsing under the assault of unrelenting drought. But what is lesser known is how the effects of these environmental catastrophes—whether sudden or slow-moving—are disproportionately borne by women. Disaster is seldom gender-neutral.
The gap is easiest to see in the most acute disasters. In the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami, death rates for women across the region averaged three to four times that of men. That’s in part because girls and women, per tradition, were less likely to have been taught how to swim. Also, many lacked the upper body strength necessary to climb to safety or cling to a tree; and, most tragically, in a fast-moving storm surge, mothers who stopped to find and gather up children or other dependents lost valuable time, which in some cases meant the difference between life and death.
The tragic list goes on: in the 1995 Kobe Japan earthquake, one and a half times more women died than men; in the 1991 floods in Bangladesh, five times as many women as men died. In these societies, women often live longer, but they often live in substandard conditions compared with men, making them most vulnerable to havoc wreaked by nature.
Even when the disaster does not roll in with jaw-droppingly swift power, women typically fall victim far more often than men. For instance, climate change is already producing shifts in the habitats of malarial mosquitoes throughout Africa, pushing the disease into new places. For millions of women, especially pregnant or HIV-positive women, this is a new threat knocking at the door: malaria is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality.
As climate change wreaks havoc in agriculture, we are witnessing a burgeoning crisis regarding food, both in its availability and price. In most cultures, including, arguably, our own, women eat the least; men and boys are privileged in household and family food allocation. In a feature article for The Washington Post in 2008, reporter Kevin Sullivan observed that, “In poor nations, such as Burkina Faso in the heart of West Africa, mealtime conspires against women. They grow the food, fetch the water, shop at the market, and cook the meals. But when it comes time to eat, men and children eat first, and women eat last and least.” This is certainly happening in Somalia in the path of the devastating famine: The United Nations has warned that women fleeing for refugee camps across the border are being raped, abducted, and forced into marriage. In the new world order of climate change, the world’s women will get hungrier, and more brutalized, still.
When acute disasters or chronic environmental change produce social and economic disruption, and particularly if civic order collapses entirely, violence against women and girls, especially sexual violence and sex trafficking, increase dramatically. As the U.S. State Department noted in its 2010 Human Trafficking Report, “From cyclones and floods in Southern Africa to the earthquake in Haiti, the last year has seen a multitude of natural disasters leading to increased physical and economic insecurity. These disasters disproportionately affected the most vulnerable sectors of society—migrants, job seekers, and poor families—making them easy targets for exploitation and enslavement.”
To mitigate the gendered impacts of environmental change, we need, first, to start with awareness—knowing the problem, and acknowledging it. Most official and policy analysis of disasters and environmental change is stunningly gender-blind. But a small cadre of feminist researchers and activists are poised to turn this tide. The international Gender & Disasters Network and the Gender and Climate Change Network provide clearinghouses for research and offer focal points for activists and scholars working toward policy change. Persistent efforts, combining the forces of academia and community organizing, are shifting official policies, albeit at a glacial pace. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is only recently—yet stingily—taking note of the gender component, while most of the U.N. agencies dealing with social or environmental issues make obligatory, if fleeting, note of the gendered dimensions of disasters.
One of the brightest spots on the official policy map is Mozambique, where Environment Minister Alcinda Abreu in 2009 and 2010 commissioned a worldwide first national strategy plan for gender and environment. Let us hope the rest of the world is not far behind.