Some five years back, South Asia saw disasters of sorts. These disasters germinated starvation, epidemic, political instability, climate change and violence. Like always, women were heavily victimized.
For example, after the 2010 floods in Pakistan, it was estimated that about 85% of the overall displaced people were women and children. Sexual assault, exposure and water borne diseases increased. The situation got worse when most of these women, especially pregnant and lactating mothers, refrained from collecting help from male aid workers due to social taboos. A child complained on national news that the strong men would grab whatever food was available and the rest would be left starving. Records show that, in Pakistan, the rural women who suffered from chronic food insecurity, malnutrition, early and frequent pregnancy have increased the rate of maternal mortality after the disaster.
Similar was the case in Bangladesh after Cyclone Sidr, 2007 and the 2004 floods. These calamities inundated several districts, devastated agricultural crops and livelihoods of millions of people. These annihilating occurrences destructed shelter, lives, livestock, savings, crops, other assets and various means of livelihood for the affected people. And again, the most affected out of them all were women including their children.
In Nepal, the 2008 floods in Koshi damaged lives of another million of people. While everybody suffered equally in terms of devastation, the psychological impact on women was much more. In Sunsari, when people were made to take shelter in classrooms, women were vulnerable to attacks from men, like in Pakistan. Some were without food for almost three days because they had been doing all they could to feed their family members.
A woman’s role is distinct and very much different from a man’s. A man may be a breadwinner and may perform instrumental roles, a woman’s role is much more important as she turns the bread into food, that is something edible enough. Her role do not end with that, she has her chores to complete, taunts and complaints to hear, and in some cases office work to complete.
This could be a normal life of many women we see around us. However, talking about women after disasters, they have their work increased ten-fold. Starting from trying to cope up with disasters with the heavy effects of tragic instances to continuing with their daily work doesn’t look like a very happy life at all. Many women lose their husbands and bear the additional role of heading the family; both instrumental and expressive roles. Others still have to try and make the remains of the previous scenes into ‘homes’.
Despite all this, a woman does not give up. She’s not weak. Her responsibilities and duties along with your taunts and abuses have made her strong to start from scratch, and still not for once think twice about doing it or not. There have always been strong women at times of war and disaster. And there still are. Don’t support her, and she’ll show you what she can do. Encourage her, and it is going to be epic.
In rural Bangladesh where floods are common occurrences, Saheema has learnt to preserve food, raise her house on stilts and use radio to receive flood warnings. She is glad to know how to live with floods now. She has managed to save her family, children, belongings and animals. Her children are lucky too for they have a mother who can teach them how to survive a disaster. She has also organized a committee of women to be prepared for floods. Efforts like these have saved numerous lives and empowered women.
This is just one reference. Evidences of women and girls from all walks of life who are making a difference continues to emerge. Women are leading efforts in many communities across the globe. Though seldom recognized, their work saves lives, communities and families. In 1998, residents of the town of La Masica in Honduras received gender-sensitive training on early warning systems. The community then decided that men and women should participate equally in disaster management activities. Women replaced men who had abandoned continuous monitoring of the town’s early warning system. When Hurricane Mitch struck in the same year, the municipality was prepared and all residents were evacuated promptly, avoiding any deaths.
In the end, like Hillary Clinton mentioned in the third annual Women in the World Summit held in New York in March 2012, “What does it mean to be a woman in the world? … It means never giving up … It means getting up, working hard and putting a country or a community on your back.”