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Environmental disasters

Disasters do not strike evenly by social class or gender. However, it is well established that the poor are more exposed to environmental and other disasters, and also more vulnerable to them when they occur. They are more likely to live in disaster-prone areas, in vulnerable, badly built and badly sited housing, and with few resources to pay for rescue or rehabilitation.

Anyone who is located (socially and/or spatially) 'out of the loop' of information supplied by early warning systems is likely to suffer more from disasters. In some countries, these individuals are more likely to be women than men. The 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh resulted in a disproportionate number of female deaths (71 per 1 000 women as against 15 per
1 000 men). This was partly because warnings of the cyclone were displayed in public places, less frequented by women. Researchers also found that women delayed leaving their houses for much longer, in order to avoid the impropriety of being alone in public. Women were also less likely to have been taught how to swim (Khonder 1996).

On the other hand, men sometimes treat disaster warnings less seriously. More men than women died in Florida and the Caribbean during Hurricane Mitch in 1998, in part because they ventured into the storm (Nelson and others 2001). The earthquake in Kobe, Japan in 1995 demonstrated clear gender-differentiated impacts both during and after the event (Box 8). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has developed gender guidelines for emergency preparedness. These include key questions to be asked in an emergency situation to help ensure that emergency interventions will be sensitive to gender differences (FAO 2001). Several other disaster-relief NGOs, including OXFAM, have done similar work.

Box 8: Gender in the Kobe earthquake

Researchers have noted a number of gender-related dimensions of the Kobe earthquake:

  • 1.5 times more women than men died in the earthquake. Researchers believe that this was because more elderly single women lived in poorer residential areas where the damage by the earthquake was more severe;
  • Many more women than men developed post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of the earthquake. Because water, electrical, gas, and sewage systems were all damaged, women suddenly were thrust into the position of keeping households together without modern support systems;
  • Men faced pressure to get back to work as soon as possible. Many men had to sleep in their offices because of lack of transportation;
  • Male alcoholism and suicides increased in the aftermath of the earthquake; and
  • Domestic violence against women increased because of anxiety and pressure.
Source: Government of Japan 2003

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