In quest of gender sensitive disaster management
Bangladesh is one of the worst victimized countries of climate-induced natural disasters that experiences different catastrophic hazards such as flood, cyclone, storm surge, massive rainfall, and water-logging almost every year. Global Climate Risk Index (CRI) 2019 ranked Bangladesh seventh among the most vulnerable countries, taking the impacts of extreme weather-related events from 1999 and 2018 into account. The devastating impacts of natural disasters on the country are characterized by the destruction of life, properties and assets, the collapse of infrastructures and communication system, and obstruction of the trades, economy and market system causing untold sufferings of the people.
However, building resilience to climate change and disaster impacts is key to achieving global agenda for sustainable development. The target 13.b of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also emphasizes on considering special needs of the vulnerable-including women-in disaster management strategies. It is evident that disasters and any other emergencies have disproportionate effects on the poorest and most vulnerable. Men and women don't share the same vulnerabilities, needs, or even the same resources, when it comes to coping with disaster impacts.
Cyclone Aila studies suggest that women are 14 times more vulnerable than men during disaster and post-disaster period. The UN Environment Programme reports that during the cyclone disasters in Bangladesh, in 1991, the number of deaths per 1,000 was 71 for women compared to 15 for men. A study on the cyclone in 2009 depicts that the numbers of affected women accounts for 134,596, while the number was 124,172 for men in different coastal regions of Bangladesh. Very recently, the deadly tropical cyclone Amphan has left an emblem of havoc and devastation over Bangladesh that has taken away at least 10 women's lives in the coastal districts of the country.
The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing recognizes that women and girls are largely affected by disaster and climate change impacts. They are more likely to suffer from various communicable diseases and subjected to different forms of violence-both physical and sexual. A study conducted in 2008 in Bangladesh reports that about 71.6 % of women were subject to intimidation, physical and sexual abuse while they rushed to, or were inside emergency shelters during disasters that had long term adverse effects on their health.
The provision for women's reproductive health and hygiene, especially menstrual hygiene, is often ignored in disaster management process. The special needs of older women, girls with disability, lactating mothers, pregnant women, and adolescent girls-who are supposedly at higher risk during disasters-are not taken into account properly in relief and other disaster management process. This, at times, leads to various water-borne, vector-borne and other gynaecological diseases. The situation gets worse in case of pregnant women, especially when one goes into labor in the temporary shelters without having adequate medical care and assistance of experienced midwives.
Due to the scarcity of sanitation facilities, women and girls largely depend on the floating toilet, and some wait for whole night to go to open places during the flood. There is absence of separate toilet facilities for women in the shelter centres. Therefore, the safety and security measures for women and girls remain questionable. Moreover, adolescent girls and women also face challenges in terms of menstrual hygiene as those issues are not considered in different phases of disaster management--from relief distribution to emergency shelter management.
Social restriction on women's mobility also leads to women's lower skills in swimming, running, and climbing trees that exacerbates their greater risk and vulnerability to disaster. Moreover, many women can't move to the emergency shelter leaving their children and elderly unguarded and houses, assets, and belongings unsafe- as the responsibility of taking care of infants and older persons is vested on women. Limited social mobility of women in the public sphere may also restrict their ability to receive early warnings. Nonetheless, women's workload and burden of household activities, such as, collecting water and firewood, preparing food, washing and taking care of children and the elderly in the family, is also intensified during disaster. Women's inferior position in society is one of the catalysts in determining their risks and susceptibility during the disaster.
Given the situation, women' vulnerability and greater risks need to be reflected in our national plan for disaster management. Those who are involved in disaster management process-from root level volunteers to decision makers-should be provided with training on gender sensitive disaster management. However, measures should be taken to enhance awareness, education, and skills of women on climate change mitigation and adaptation to cope with the risks of disaster, and engage women in community-based disaster management structure, early warning systems, emergency relief and medical services.
There should have special provision for the women with limited physical mobility-such as, the mother with children, pregnant women, women with disability, and older women-in accessing emergency shelters. These centres require to be made gender-sensitive keeping adequate provisions of, not limited to, safe doors, sufficient light, separate toilet facilities, facilities for disposal of menstrual waste, and safe space for breastfeeding for lactating women. Reproductive health and menstrual hygiene issues of women should be considered widely in those emergency shelter centres.
Moreover, female physicians and counsellors need to be made available to provide sexual and reproductive health education, medical care, and psychosocial support if needed. In emergency relief management, the special needs of women and adolescent girls (concerning their adolescent and reproductive health) should be widely considered and prioritized. If we fail to address women's greater vulnerability and special needs in disaster management process, and make gender-sensitive disaster response mechanism, the natural hazards would cost more in the coming days, and therefore, our dream for achieving sustainable development would remain unmet.
The writer is a faculty member, Department of Social Welfare,
Islamic University, Kushtia