Studying and analysing disasters, their impact and how these are dealt with by governments, humanitarian agencies and people, is developing as a research area with a multidisciplinary approach. In recent times the University Grants Commission in India and the Division of Disaster Management in the Indian Government have given huge funding for developing studies around this. It is therefore not only timely, but also appropriate that a book such as this is published.
The book underlines that South Asia is one of the most disaster prone regions in the world, affected by natural, climate induced and human disasters that range from earthquakes, to floods and epidemics. Between 1980 and 2010 alone, 470,124 people died in such disasters and millions others were variously affected. It is also a fact that during disasters it is the already vulnerable that are most affected. Further, disasters, their impact, the relief and rehabilitation all have a gender aspect to it. It is this aspect that this volume examines.
Growing research on gender and disaster shows that men and women experience disaster differently and their needs in the aftermath often differ. The responses to disaster are clearly gendered, and there is need to make sure that these different needs are catered to. However, communities, including those in South Asia continue to ignore gender needs and as the introduction by Racioppi argues, this ignorance compounds vulnerabilities and reduces the likelihood of resilience against disasters. The message is clear. That if gender is not taken into account in disaster relief and recovery, preparedness and mitigation, the entire process is partial, marred and incomplete. It is in this context that experts on South Asia on gender and disaster have contributed to this volume.
The tsunami of 2004 was one of the biggest natural disasters in recent history as it swept across many coastal areas of South and South East Asia. The impact on the coastal areas of South India was devastating. Chaman Pincha has looked at the Indian Ocean Tsunami through the gendered lens even in earlier works, and examines the death rates and gender issues between men and women amongst some of the tsunami affected communities of Tamil Nadu State in India. Similarly, Julia Novak Colwell looks at the gendered nature of post-tsunami aid and its impacts. In this tsunami more women were killed because of a variety of reasons including the fact that men were out fishing at sea and got saved in boats, while women waiting on the shore were killed. Women tried to save their children but did not have the strength to save both themselves and a child. Women did not have swimming skills on account of gender traditions where women are not taught such skills even when they live near the sea. Further, dress codes like long hair and saris prevent freedom of movement in disaster times.
That relief distribution in disaster times is gendered is shown in all the essays of the book. Beside the economic and psychosocial stress, violence against women is seen to have increased in almost all cases. The reasons include lack of livelihood and increase in alcohol consumption amongst men leads to violence. Lack of privacy, lack of toilets all put women women’s lives at continued danger and risks.
At the same time, some disasters have also led to a change in social norms, like the post-tsunami experience has given women greater visibility, acceptance and brought them into the public and political sphere. Mihir Bhatt examines the case studies and actual daily experience of SEWA and SNEHA in their post disaster work. SEWA’s remarkable work of creating shelters, giving relief, engaging women into a work schedule and empowering them has been a remarkable exercise, documented by Bhatt. SEWA worked after almost all major Indian disasters, and provides a model of selfless and necessary work.
An important and well researched piece on the experience of women after the Orissa super cyclone by three scholars Mamata Swain, Mritunjay Swain and Ranju Sahoo does a detailed socio-economic background of sample women whom they survey to show the loss of livelihood, employment, impact on physical and mental health and how uneven and gendered all this is as far as women are concerned.
Experiences in post-tsunami Sri Lanka is analysed by Madhvi Malagoda Ariyabandu, Ramona Miranda and Kusala Wettasinhe. After a detailed economic analysis these researchers show that post-tsunami livelihood interventions have shown some examples of good practices and some individuals and groups did benefit from the support they received. But these examples are not spread horizontally or even vertically to make long term impacts on patterns of access to livelihoods. Women thus continue to be at the lower rungs of employment chains and have little space to negotiate rights for themselves. They continue to be discriminated against and suffer all types of violence, structural and domestic.
An essay on rural Nepal on gender politics and disaster shows that despite the long civil war and Maoist insurgency politics, where women participated for the sake of their own emancipation, livelihood questions in Nepal remain gendered. At the time of drought, women bear the greatest burden and disaster is seen as a women’s issue. The immediate victims needs are often addressed but long term livelihood or social change does not follow.
Pakistan cannot be left behind in such a study, and Sana Saleem does an excellent report on floods in Pakistan and how they have an unequal and gendered impact on women. The already exploitative social structure like bonded labour, semi-feudal relations and patriarchy intersect to keep women behind. Saleem cites an instance where even preference was given to save cattle over saving a woman. Women victims are invisibilized and yet carry the burden of post-disaster rehabilitation for children, older people and even men.
Other essays, including one on Bihar by Eklavya Prasad, Vinay Kumar, Pradeep Poddar and Prem Verma, a case study of a development organization and rural reconstruction by Prema Gopalan, further reinforce the arguments of the need for a gender-based rehabilitation and development policy.
Three essays in this book give an excellent theoretical analysis of comparative gender-based experience post disasters. One on violence at times of disasters by Brenda Philips and Pamela Jenkins is based on substantive earlier research and case studies. This essay looks at strategies, tools and methods to reduce such violence. An essay by Mihir Bhatt, Mehul Pandya and Z. Willison examines the paradigm of gender, disaster and development. They argue for mainstreaming of gender, of moving away from the top-down approach to more lateral ones, and strategies for building resilience. The two ultimate chapters, one by Nibedita S. Ray-Bennet on securitizing gender and disaster and a summing up by Swarna Rajagopalan show how women’s experiences have similarities across caste, class cultures and nation states, in that they remain below that of men in their social group, are less valued and their gender needs not accounted for. Swarna rightly brings in Security Council Resolution 1325, to show how relevant it is for this resolution to be applied and used across all times and structures and especially during conflicts and disasters so as to show the real and equal place of women and attend to the needs of women. Women are at the centre of a reconstruction and development practice and to ignore this role is to neglect development and reconstruction itself.
Despite such rich studies, research based on the experience of women in disaster affected regions, it is indeed tragic that gender related issues are still not given the attention they deserve. Even though there is much change, since women’s groups started researching, publishing and mobilizing on this issue, there is still an absence of gender focus in disaster management policies and practices. There is also a class and caste bias that compounds relief and aid distribution. The need for such work, popularizing this theme by civil society and making governments and humanitarian bodies work on this remains a critical task.
This is indeed an excellent and useful collection. Many of the essays have been published earlier. This book shows that studies on disaster and gender are rich in their analysis and students of the discipline would do well to use these as well as learn from them.
Anuradha M. Chenoy is Professor in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.