The recent spate of “natural” disasters (some of which are “climate related”, some are not) all over the world caused me to wonder whether their effects are evenly spread between the sexes. Logically, human beings of both sexes should react in much the same way to environmental threats, and any differences in the effect of disasters between the sexes should be fairly small.
I was interested to turn up some research that has already been done. I was appalled at what it showed: more women die than men as the direct and indirect result of natural disasters; 90 per cent of the 140,000 victims of the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone disasters were women (PDF 92KB); more women than men died during the 2003 European heat wave; and the 2006 tsunami killed three to four women for each man.
How could that be so?
In a speech in 1999 Lord Hoffman, an English law lord, said “... unless you know the question, you will not be able to get the right answer. Once the question has been identified, the answer is usually relatively easy ...”. That prompted me to think that in order to find out why women are more affected by climate change than men, by first asking "in what ways are women more affected?" we might get some clues as to why women are affected in that way.
Some interesting patterns emerged when I went digging.
In Sri Lanka, swimming and tree climbing are taught mainly to boys; this helped males cope better than females, and allowed more to survive when the waves of the tsunami hit. Social prejudice keeps girls and women from learning to swim, which severely reduces their chances of survival in flooding disasters.
Women often stay indoors because of social prohibitions against leaving home.
In Aceh many women were found dead with babies still clutched in their arms. Some personal accounts by survivors tell of mothers pushing their children to safety on to buildings or up trees that withstood the tsunami, but were then swept away themselves. The long dresses women are obliged to wear under Aceh’s shariah laws made it harder to move quickly. They could not run as fast as men, nor could they swim.
There were stories of some women, who were in their homes but casually dressed when the first wave struck, who ran to put on “acceptable” outdoor clothes before seeking safety, and as a result were drowned or barely escaped.
In times of disaster and environmental stress women become less mobile because they are the primary care-givers.
After a natural disaster, women are more likely to become victims of domestic and sexual violence. They often avoid using shelters out of fear. The household workload increases substantially after a disaster, which forces many girls to drop out of school to help with chores.
Nutritional status is a critical determinant (PDF 968KB) of the ability to cope with the effect of natural disasters. Women are more prone to nutritional deficiencies because of their unique nutritional needs. Some cultures have household food hierarchies, generally favouring males. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women carry greater loads than men, but have a lower intake of calories because the cultural norm is for men to receive more food.
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