Previously, we looked at the lethal combination of biology, discrimination and inadequate crisis responses that result in the disproportionate impact of natural disasters on women. This time we delve deeper into why women in earthquake-ravaged Nepal were more vulnerable in the first place.
Nepal is the second poorest country in Asia (after Afghanistan) and one of the poorest countries in the world. It is also the11th most earthquake-prone country in the world. Whilst it goes without saying that disaster affects everyone, not everyone experiences those effects in the same way. There were myriad existing socio-cultural and economic factors that meant women were particularly vulnerable following the earthquakes in Nepal.
So, what were some of the major factors?
Widespread inequality and discrimination
For centuries, inequality in Nepal has been widespread, based on caste, gender, geographical location, ethnicity, economic status, (dis)ability and language, amongst other things. Gender is a particularly strong determinant of inequality in Nepal and despite having ratified more than 25 international human and women’s rights declarations and treaties, strong beliefs persist about the role of women in Nepal.
As in other parts of the world, Nepali women experience discrimination on a daily basis as a result of rigid gender stereotypes and socio-cultural norms. Women from lower castes such as Dalit women, women with disabilities, widows and those living in remote regions experience many further disadvantages that make them even more vulnerable to discrimination, poverty and violence and the impacts of natural disaster.
This widespread discrimination means that women are particularly vulnerable when disaster strikes because chaos exacerbates gender inequalities that already exist.
Lack of access to and control over resources
According to the Asian Development Bank, gender inequality affects women’s access to services, resources, education and political representation as well as social inclusion and vulnerability to discrimination and violence. This means women have less resources available to draw on to cope with a major disaster.
In Nepal, women generally have far less access to livelihood assets and opportunities to generate income compared with men. Due to patrilineal inheritance practices common in Nepal, women are frequently denied access to and control over familial property. Major economic decisions are usually made by the head of the household, but only 15% of families in Nepal are female-headed – meaning that women often have very little control over the economic decisions that affect their lives. Although there has been an increase in the proportion of economically active women recently, their earned income is about one-third that of men and women continue to have low access to property ownership, financial credit, and political power.
Disruption to systems and services during a disaster mean that this already limited access decreases further and some women find themselves forced to turn to risky behaviour such as transactional sex as a means of survival. 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 (more on this in next week’s blog).
The increased prevalence of risky sexual behaviour, increased rates of rape, sexual exploitation and trafficking following a natural disaster can increase women’s risk of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and complications regarding reproductive and sexual health. This behaviour coupled with women’s other specific needs (keep reading!), and you have yourselves a recipe for, well, even more disaster…
Socio-cultural norms that relate to women’s health
Factors that contribute to lower health outcomes for women and girls include their lower status, preference for sons, practices of inheritance that favour boys, low education levels among women, and cultural shame about the body and reproductive functions. Women face a whole host of health risks in post-disaster environments particularly due to socio-cultural norms surrounding menstruation and hygiene, i.e. ideas about menstruating more than the actual biology of it.
It is common for women in rural and remote areas of Nepal to suffer from reproductive health issues such as uterine prolapse, lack of menstrual hygiene management, and restricted feeding practices during menstruation and post-pregnancy, due to socio-cultural limitations that prevent women from seeking information and treatment of these issues or discussing them publicly. For example, women in Nepal continue to bear the health consequences of age-old cultural practices like Chaupadi.
Chaupadi is the isolation of a woman from the household and community during her menstruation in usually dark, damp, and unhygienic sheds as a result of her ‘impure’ condition during this time. Women risk contracting diseases and are exposed to other risks such as rape or attacks by snakes or other animals. Chaupadi is also practiced after childbirth, which puts women and their infants at risk of disease and death. This is especially practiced in the far-western hills of Nepal. If you want to know more, check out this powerful photo gallery of women practicing chaupadi in Nepal by the Guardian.
You may remember us sharing with you the story of Urmila*, a widow, who was menstruating at the time of the earthquake and was left with only the clothes on her back after her house collapsed and buried everything she owned. She was so ashamed of her condition that she wrapped a banner around herself in order to patiently line up and receive emergency supplies from the Women’s Foundation Nepal (WFN). The lack of access to menstrual products, clean water and a change of clothes for women like Urmila* was something that we, as a women-focused organisation, were keenly aware of remedying following the earthquakes. By the end of the first month of our crisis response we had bought and distributed 40,000 sanitary items.
As we have seen in Nepal, socio-cultural practices related to menstruation adversely affect the health and wellbeing of girls and women and this is severely exacerbated during natural disaster.
On top of this – the lack of toilets following the collapse of houses forces women and girls to urinate and defecate outside. This puts them at risk of physical and sexual assault and attacks from animals, which in turn often means that they hold their urination creating all sorts of other health problems such as urinary tract infections. It’s a vicious cycle and we need to continue to mitigate risks posed by lack of access to clean water, healthcare and infrastructure to accommodate women’s needs post-disaster.
Traditional caring roles
As in so many other parts of the world, women have traditionally had primary responsibility for looking after their families and communities in Nepal. This burden of care increased after the earthquakes, and women were faced with the added responsibility of caring for the sick and injured, and to do so with scarce resources. This compromises women’s abilities to economically support themselves and their dependants.
Suffice it to say, Nepali women were at a severe disadvantage to begin with, which compromised their ability to cope with the magnitude of the earthquakes, which further exacerbated a number of economic, sociological and cultural inequalities and created new ones.
Inequality + natural disaster = further inequality and a recipe for more disaster.
Next up, we take a look at how those vulnerabilities have manifested in post-disaster Nepal. This is the second blog in our series, (Wo)managing disaster in Nepal, on the unique and disproportionate ways women have been affected by the earthquakes. ICYMI – here’s the first one – the deadliest gender gap of all. You can be part of the conversation by leaving a comment below or get involved in the discussion on Facebook or Twitter.