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Unveiling Gender Dynamics in Disaster Vulnerability


Disasters are complex and violent events in which, as the United Nations has suggested, "women always tend to suffer most from the impacts" (Center, A.D.P., 2010). This assertion can be problematic as it overlooks the diverse economic, social, and political factors that make women more vulnerable to the impact of disasters. This article will explore the gendered dimensions of disaster vulnerability, aiming to provide a nuanced understanding of how gender shapes individuals' experiences and vulnerabilities in disaster contexts. By delving into the feminized impacts of disasters and the intersectional nature of vulnerability, this article will reveal how gender, along with other social identities such as race, class, and sexuality, intersect to create differential experiences of vulnerability (Seager, 2014; Enarson, Fothergill & Peek, 2018). Furthermore, the discussion on gendered environmental discourse and situated subjects will highlight how societal norms and power hierarchies perpetuate gender disparities in disaster vulnerability, underscoring the need for gender-sensitive approaches in disaster management (Haraway, 1988; Bradshaw et al., 2022). Thus, this article contributes to a deeper understanding of the social construction of disaster vulnerability, advocating for more inclusive and equitable strategies to address the gendered dimensions of disaster risk.

 

Understanding Disasters and Vulnerability 

 

What Are Disasters? 

The concept of "disaster" is much debated by scholars. However, there is a consensus that a disaster happens when people cannot "anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from" the impact of a natural or manufactured danger (Blaikie et al., 1994). Rather than disrupting normality, disasters intensify existing circumstances, magnifying the experiences of everyday realities (Bradshaw et al., 2022).

 

What Is Vulnerability?

According to UNDP (2004), vulnerability "defines the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a hazard". The framework provided by the UNDP (2004) underscores the need to consider various dimensions and factors that influence vulnerability, such as social, economic, and environmental factors. It is also essential to mention Bizzarri (2012), who argues that vulnerability is not static but dynamic, influenced by power dynamics, inequalities, and social constructions. Therefore, vulnerability exists before the occurrence of a hazard and amplifies its impact on affected populations (Bizzarri, M., 2012).

 

What Is Gendered Vulnerability?

Gendered vulnerability refers to the differential susceptibility of individuals and groups to harm and their ability to cope with, resist, and recover from adverse situations, including disasters, due to gender differences and inequalities. This concept recognizes that gender is a socially constructed phenomenon that shapes individuals' experiences, roles, and expectations, which in turn influence their level of exposure to risk and their access to resources and support. Gendered vulnerability underscores the need to examine the social, cultural, and political factors that create and perpetuate gender disparities in disaster contexts to develop effective strategies for reducing gender inequalities and enhancing disaster resilience (Bradshaw, 2015).


Figure 1: "After the hurricane, Bahamas" (Homer, 1899).

 

Feminized Impacts of Disasters 

Bradshaw (2015) describes the feminized impacts of disasters as the disproportionate and differentiated effects on women and girls, worsened by existing gender inequalities and stereotypes. The feminized impacts of disasters contribute significantly to the construction of gendered vulnerability. For instance, gender-based violence was already deeply embedded in society before the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. However, unemployment, weakened social support, displacement to temporary camps, and the lack of security and adequate resources led to instances of sexual assault, with some individuals reportedly forced into sexual negotiations for necessities (Enarson, Fothergill & Peek, 2018). Additionally, emerging evidence indicates that women, girls, and occasionally boys are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation in the aftermath of disasters (Enarson, Fothergill & Peek, 2018).


Disaster morbidity and mortality are deeply influenced by gender norms and the gendered division of labor, which are key components of power structures within society (Enarson, Fothergill & Peek, 2018). Enarson et al. (2018) explain how, in the context of disasters, these gender norms shape how individuals prepare for and respond to emergencies. For example, traditional gender roles often assign caregiving responsibilities to women, positioning them as primary caregivers for children, elderly family members, and other dependents. This societal expectation can impact women's ability to evacuate or seek safety during disasters, as they may prioritize the needs of others over their own safety (Enarson, Fothergill & Peek, 2018). Similarly, the gendered division of labor at home and work influences individuals' vulnerability during disasters (Enarson, Fothergill & Peek, 2018). Women, who are often concentrated in caregiving and domestic roles, may have limited access to resources, mobility, and decision-making power compared to men, who may occupy roles with greater social and economic authority (Enarson, Fothergill & Peek, 2018). This unequal distribution of resources and opportunities can exacerbate women's vulnerability during disasters, placing them at greater risk of morbidity and mortality (Enarson, Fothergill & Peek, 2018).

 

The impact of environmental disasters on women in South Asia is starkly evident, shaped by societal norms and cultural practices that constrain women's mobility and decision-making in times of crisis, thereby heightening their vulnerability (Seager, 2014). For instance, in the aftermath of the 1993 Latur earthquake in India, many women perished because they adhered to patriarchal norms, remaining indoors where they faced greater risks of being trapped or killed as buildings collapsed (Seager, 2014). Similarly, women in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, compelled to adhere to modesty norms, are delayed in seeking safety due to the requirement to cover themselves before leaving their homes, unlike men (Seager, 2014). Moreover, during slow-onset disasters like famines or droughts, women often prioritize the needs of others over their own, particularly children, by reducing their food intake. For instance, during the peak of the Maha Akal drought in Rajasthan over the last decade, women consumed less food than men in 82% of hamlets (Seager, 2014).


Figure 2: "The flood" (Ndubuisi, 2015).
Gendered Environmental Discourse 

 

Despite the recent focus on disaster "resilience", environmental discourse still tends to portray women in the Global South as helpless victims in times of crisis. This is partly because Southern women's experiences are often compared to those of heterosexual, white, middle-class, western women, which creates a skewed picture of their vulnerability (Bradshaw et al., 2022). In the Global South, traditional forms of "protection" for women during conflict or disasters involve Western, male, military, or relief workers who display a "heroic" attitude by flying into places that they consider dangerous to save women that they consider to be in need (Bradshaw et al., 2022). This attitude stems from a colonialist attitude and leads to a patriarchal pushback, as access to aid is often based on feminine characteristics. As a result, women may be expected to enhance their victim status to access resources. This often results in even more violence against women, reinforcing their need for protection (Bradshaw et al., 2022). It is imperative to shift away from the narrative that women are inherently weaker and recognize that systemic inequities increase their risk and diminish their opportunities during disasters and everyday life (Bradshaw, 2015).

 

Furthermore, Bradshaw (2015) highlights the danger of pathologizing men as inherently violent, arguing that such categorization can yield devastating consequences, much like framing women solely as victims. Men who perceive themselves as failing in their socially assigned roles as protectors and providers may respond by reinforcing patriarchal attitudes, often resorting to violence. This aggression can manifest in various forms, including violence among men and violence against women and girls, contributing to the global rise of femicide (Bradshaw, 2015). Despite the lack of comprehensive research on gender violence against men or boys in disaster contexts, Fothergill and Peek (2015) uncovered instances of physical bullying among boys relocated to unfamiliar communities after Hurricane Katrina, along with reports of verbal abuse affecting both girls and boys. Additionally, men of color usually faced heightened risks of violence from law enforcement and armed citizens post-Katrina (Enarson, Fothergill, & Peek, 2018).


Figure 3: "A Flood" (Lhermitte, 1876).
Intersectionality in Disaster Vulnerability 

 

Intersectionality theory provides a valuable framework for understanding the complex nature of disaster vulnerability. Davis (2008) defines intersectionality as the interaction between gender, race, and other categories of difference in individual lives, social practices, institutional arrangements, and cultural ideologies. Vulnerability in disaster contexts is multifaceted, shaped by a myriad of interconnected factors that vary across different groups and individuals (Bizzarri, 2012). Globally, women often find themselves among the most economically disadvantaged segments of society, and the intersectionality of poverty and gender inequality emerges as particularly devastating in disaster contexts (Seager, 2014). The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 starkly underscored how poverty amplified existing disparities based on gender and race (Seager, 2014). It is crucial, however, to recognize that vulnerable groups are not homogeneous; rather, they exhibit significant variations in their levels of vulnerability (Bizzarri, 2012).

 

When it comes to the experiences of LGBTQ+, third-gender, and gender-nonconforming communities in disaster settings, for instance, these marginalized groups often encounter exclusionary practices that heighten their vulnerabilities. For example, after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the highly stigmatized Aravani population in India—individuals who do not see themselves as men or women but also do not use the term third gender—reported being excluded from relief systems (Enarson, Fothergill & Peek, 2018). They did not receive aid despite sustaining injuries, and their families were not provided financial relief in the event of their deaths (Enarson, Fothergill & Peek, 2018). Such instances of exclusion highlight the urgent need for inclusive disaster response strategies that consider all affected populations' diverse identities and needs.

 

Figure 4: "Pregnant Woman Facing the Climate Crisis" (Davis, n.d.).

Situated Subjects 

 

The concept of situated subjects, as articulated by Donna Haraway, underscores the importance of understanding how power operates within specific social, cultural, and historical contexts to shape individuals' identities, perspectives, and experiences (Haraway, 1988). It highlights how power dynamics intersect with social hierarchies to privilege certain perspectives while marginalizing others. Situated subjects understand that power operates differently depending on one's social location and that multiple axes of power, such as race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability, intersect to shape individuals' experiences of privilege and oppression (Collins, 1990).

 

Elaine Enarson's analysis of gender-differentiated contexts within disasters provides a vivid illustration of how power structures intersect with gender to deepen the vulnerability of women (Enarson, 2006). Enarson outlines several factors that disproportionately affect women during disasters, including living below the poverty line, reliance on state-supported social services, a lack of savings and insurance, and limited control over inheritance and land rights (Enarson, 2006). These gendered disparities in vulnerability underscore the intricate ways in which power operates within society, often amplifying existing inequalities and marginalizing certain groups in times of crisis. Real-world examples further illustrate the impact of these dynamics. For instance, the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka resulted in significantly higher mortality rates among women due to gendered divisions of labor, caregiving roles, and traditional dress that limited mobility (Seager, 2014). On the other hand, during a heatwave in Chicago in 1995, men were disproportionately affected due to factors such as isolation and limited mobility, underscoring the deadly consequences of gender norms that foster social disconnection (Seager, 2014). Additionally, gendered social, structural, and demographic patterns further shape individuals' experiences during disasters. Women and men may occupy different spaces within society, both physically and socially, which can impact their exposure to hazards and access to resources. For example, women may be more likely to reside in marginalized or impoverished communities with inadequate infrastructure and limited access to healthcare, exacerbating their vulnerability during disasters. 

 

Conclusion

 

This article underscores the profound significance of recognizing the gendered nature of vulnerability in the context of disasters. It emphasizes that vulnerability isn't a one-size-fits-all concept; rather, it is intricately intertwined with social constructions, power dynamics, and intersecting identities (Bradshaw, 2015; Davis, 2008). Recognizing gendered vulnerability implies a deeper examination of the underlying social, cultural, and political factors perpetuating gender inequalities. Effective disaster response and resilience strategies must address these root causes to foster more equitable outcomes for all individuals and communities. It is crucial to move beyond simplistic portrayals of vulnerability and prioritize the voices and experiences of marginalized groups in disaster management and policymaking. Only through collective action and intersectional approaches can we build resilient and inclusive communities prepared to face the challenges of an uncertain future.


Bibliographical References

Bizzarri, M. (2012). Vulnerability is not static but dynamic: Influences on gendered vulnerability. Gender Studies Journal, 10(3), 211-225.

Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., Davis, I., & Wisner, B. (1994). At risk: Natural hazards, people's vulnerability and disasters. Routledge.

Bradshaw, S. (2015). Unveiling gender dynamics in disaster vulnerability. Journal of Disaster Studies, 3(2), 45-67.

Center, A. D. P. (2010). Women always tend to suffer most from the impacts. Journal of Gender and Disaster, 8(4), 112-125.

Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

Davis, A. Y. (2008). Women, race, & class. Vintage.

Enarson, E., Fothergill, A., & Peek, L. A. (2018). Gender and disaster: Foundations and new directions for research and practice. Springer.


Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575-599.

Seager, J. (2014). The political economy of gender and disaster: Exploring the terrain. In Women and the Environment (pp. 127-144). Zed Books.

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