We know women experience discrimination, poverty, violence and inequality every day and in every country. So it stands to reason that we need to pay particular attention to women’s intense vulnerability during and after the chaos of a natural disaster like the earthquakes in Nepal.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: inequality + natural disaster = further inequality and even more disaster. It’s a vicious cycle.
We bet you’re wondering how those vulnerabilities manifest and what has happened to women in post-disaster Nepal. Well that’s what we’re here for!
In a nutshell, women are even more vulnerable to gender-based violence, trafficking, child marriage, maternal health complications and other related menstrual or sanitary infections following a natural disaster than they are in times of relative calm. The UNFPA’s humanitarian response coordinator in Asia and the Pacific, Priya Marwah, said recently in a statement that “in times of upheaval or natural disasters, pregnancy-related deaths and gender-based violence soar.”
Gender-based violence and exploitation
In the chaotic post-disaster period, women and girls face an escalated risk of sexual and gender-based violence, as the community spaces and ties that provided a semblance of stability and safety are disrupted and dismantled.
Leading researchers in the field of gender and disaster, Dr Claire Zara and Dr Debra Parkinson, have confirmed that displacement, stress and trauma following a disaster can create an increased risk of gender-based violence and sexual assault. Indeed they found that increased violence against women is actually a characteristic of the post-disaster period.
The grief and loss that is caused by intense disasters, coupled with the financial and bureaucratic demands of the recovery and reconstruction phase as well as the increased contact between family members — often in cramped and makeshift accommodation — can increase tension and the likelihood of violent behaviour. When this behaviour coincides with widely held community attitudes that excuse violence against women, we sometimes see up to a 400% rise in women seeking refuge from a violent partner. You can read more on this here or come and see Dr Deb Parkinson present at our upcoming event on gender and natural disaster.
Additionally, the prevalence of rape and sexual exploitation greatly increases the likelihood of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and complications regarding reproductive health during and after natural disasters.
During times of disaster, we also sometimes see women partaking in risky sexual behaviour such as transactional sex. According to the UNFPA, such ‘transactional sex’ typically involves non-marital sexual relationships, often with multiple and older male partners. Its prevalence is a reflection of men’s superior economic position and access to resources and women’s difficulties in meeting basic needs, among other things. It is important to point out that these behaviours are often a survival mechanism and form of resilience or defiance for women in a world where their body is their only currency and they find themselves using sex as a commodity in exchange for goods, services, money, accommodation, or other basic necessities.
Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers in many countries, particularly across Asia, and there are grave fears that they may target Nepal in the chaos. Organisations like international anti-slavery and trafficking organisation The Freedom Fund, have ramped up activities in Nepal following the earthquakes knowing that one of the many consequences of a natural disaster is that many more people are vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds, including commercial sexual exploitation.
Prior to the earthquake, Nepal already had a high level of child marriage. One in 10 girls are married by the age of 15, and four in 10 are married before their 18th birthdays. Similar to many other countries, the reason for child marriage in Nepal is largely due to poverty, and is aggravated by a dowry system. Child marriage rates are expected to soar in the quake’s aftermath because parents who have lost everything can no longer afford to raise their daughters and so are forced to sell them for their dowry. Orphaned girls are often preyed upon and even sometimes with the best of intentions to protect their daughters from sexual violence, some parents try and ensure their safety by marrying them off. Again, these were issues in countries like Nepal prior to the earthquakes and are likely to become even more of an issue in the wake of disaster.
Pregnancy related complications and maternal deaths soar in times of upheaval or natural disaster, according to the UNFPA who, at the time of the earthquake, estimated there to be 126,000 pregnant Nepali women. When we were delivering aid we met lots of pregnant women, many of whom were being forced to give birth under tarps and in fields because their houses and local health clinics had collapsed. You can imagine how unsafe this is for women and their newborn babies. If you would like to find out more about how you can give one woman and her newborn baby access the shelter, services and supportive environment she deserves, click here. It’s important that we all do what we can to ensure that there is not a dramatic increase in the maternal and infant mortality rates.
What are the dangers of focusing on women’s vulnerability?
When we talk about women’s unique vulnerabilities in this way it is hard not to perpetuate or reinforce existing gender stereotypes about women needing ‘saving’ or women needing ‘protection’. Thus, shifting our view from women as ‘victims’ to women as ‘agents of change’ and focusing on women’s immense capabilities in using the resources available to them is essential. As organisations working in a post-disaster context, and as an organisation focused on supporting women to empower themselves, we must not allow this narrative to overshadow women’s immense resilience and the role they have to play in leading recovery and rebuilding efforts. This tension will be the topic of our next blog in the series and also the subject of our upcoming event on Monday the 23rd November – the Disaster Agender. Details below – we’d love to see you there!
This is the third blog in our series, (Wo)managing disaster in Nepal, on the unique and disproportionate ways women have been affected by the earthquake. You can be part of the conversation by leaving a comment below or get involved in the discussion on Facebook or Twitter.
*We would like to acknowledge the sad passing of Dr Claire Zara in 2014. She is sorely missed by all who knew her and had the pleasure of working alongside her.