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Natural Disasters Hit Women Harder Than Men

Inter Press Service, Thalif Deen Posted: Mar 08, 2010

During the 1991 cyclone that killed 140,000 in Bangladesh, 90 percent of victims were women. During the 2004 Asian tsunami, 70 to 80 percent of those who died were women, according to the New York-based Womens Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO).

And in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in the United States, African-American women who were the poorest population in some of the affected states of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi faced the greatest obstacles to survival.

Amy North, a researcher working on gender, education and global poverty reduction initiatives at the Institute of Education at the University of London, told IPS that climate change is exacerbating existing gender inequalities with a devastating effect on the quality of life of poor women and girls.

In many parts of the world, women and girls are responsible for collecting water and firewood. As these resources become scarcer in the face of increasingly erratic rainfall, the women must spend more time looking for and collecting them, further reducing the time they have available to engaging in economic activities, or attending school, North said.

Women are also the main producers of food, providing 70 percent of agricultural labour in sub-Saharan Africa, and so are particularly affected by reduced agricultural output.

The care responsibilities that fall to women and girls mean that health problems associated with climate change including an increase in water-borne diseases associated with flooding often result in them taking on an increased burden of care as they are required to look after sick family members, North noted.

June Zeitlin, a former executive director of WEDO, cited a study by the London School of Economics (LSE) analysing disasters in 141 countries and providing decisive evidence that gender differences in deaths from natural disasters are directly linked to womens economic and social rights.

Gender inequalities are magnified in disaster situations. When women lack basic rights, more women than men will die from natural disasters. The LSE study also found that in societies where women and men enjoy equal rights, natural disasters kill the same number of women as men.

These discrepancies are the result of existing inequalities. Boys are likely to receive preferential treatment in rescue efforts, and both women and girls suffer more from shortage of food and economic resources in the aftermath of disasters, Zeitlin said.

North told Terraviva that in East Africa a region that is acutely feeling the effects of climate change, with droughts across the region resulting in critical shortages of food and water research suggests that increased poverty levels are having serious consequences on the education of girls.

In Kenya, participants in the Gender, Education and Global Poverty Reduction Initiatives project have noted that increased poverty associated with drought has affected school attendance with girls being more likely to be withdrawn from school than boys.

In neighbouring Uganda, the food crises associated with climate change have been linked to increased incidence of early marriage among girls as they are exchanged for dowry or bride price.

These famine marriages as they are called not only lead to girls dropping out of school, but also make them vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections and related reproductive complications.

Stefan Wallin, Finlands minister of culture and sport, told delegates this week that one of his countrys strong areas of emphasis concerns decision-making processes on matters affecting climate change. Finland has taken an active role in ensuring that climate change decision-making is inclusive, both of women and men.

Womens groups mobilised around the climate talks in Copenhagen last year to demand that a gender perspective be integrated into the Copenhagen outcomes and follow-up activities.

It is essential that these demands are taken seriously and that all future agreements around climate change recognise the differential impacts that climate change has on men and women, North stressed.

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