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Gender Dimension in Natural Disasters : Women play vital role in risk reduction and management

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Saturday, March 09, 2013

Mumita Tanjeela




Bangladesh is recognised as one of the most vulnerable countries prone to natural disasters in the world. Due to the geographical location, the country faces a number of hazards almost every year. The effects of hazards like cyclone, flood, drought, landslides have caused huge impact in terms of economy, infrastructure and life over the decades.

Bangladesh is one of the world’s most highly populated countries with 160 million population in 57,000 sq miles. Half of them are women. Majority of the population depend on nature and climate variability because natural resource and agriculture determine their livelihood patterns. The country experienced major floods in 2004 and 2007, cyclone SIDR in 2007 and AILA in 2009.

Apart from these, northern part of the country faces drought related problems during dry season while most of the coastal areas are affected by saline water. Landslide has become a recent phenomenon during rainy season in hill districts. Communities specially women and children are largely exposed to the impact of all these natural disasters.

During 1991 cyclone, about 140,000 people died, most of them women and children. Women perished with their children at home as they waited for their husbands to return and make an evacuation decision, according to a WHO study of 2002. Another study by Women’s Environment and Development Organization (2008) says women are the most vulnerable section of the population in Bangladesh where 171 disasters happened between 1971 to 2005 and more women died than men during these disasters because of their lower economic status and social capital.

Studies show disaster affects both women and men but burden of coping with disasters falls heavily on women’s shoulder because of ascribed gender roles and responsibilities. They need to feed family members, collect drinking water, arrange cooking stuffs, take care of children, elderly sick and disable members of the family. Food and seed preservation is another main responsibility of women. Apart from those they need to manage and take care of livestock and other family assets.

Disaster damages people’s lives, houses, assets, cultivatable land and crops. These hostile situations make women more vulnerable to cope with the post-disaster situation. Their lives in the disaster prone areas become more vulnerable in terms of health, nutrition, education and wellbeing. Due to lack of money in a family women’s health and education suffer first cut in the budget. The dropout rate of girl children increases, reproductive healthcare goes unattended because women receive poor priority in health care compared to men.

Moreover, women are likely to suffer mental strains during disaster period, for instance they feel shy to share public toilet with unknown male or being seen by men when they change cloths. Thus women have to bear the brunt of any disaster because the gender differentiated vulnerabilities always interact within social system and make them the most high-risk population.



In post-disaster situation, male migration is a common feature that leave behind women in a setting where they need to find out option of livelihood for survival of self and the family members by using their entitlements, social capital and human capital. Thus the number of female-headed households is increasing in Bangladesh and 95% female-headed households are below the poverty line (ADB, 2001). According to a study by WHO (2002), after any disaster women become poverty stricken and destitute if their husbands and sons die or leave them behind.

Natural disaster-induced trafficking in women, children and adolescent girls is a recent phenomenon for rural Bangladesh. Frequent disasters and natural calamities steer to chronic poverty in rural economy, which creates potential trap for trafficking of the vulnerable section of the society. Bangladesh is one of the exposed countries for trafficking because of its large population who are living in chronic poverty, confronting regular natural disasters and having gender inequality.

During disaster women and adolescent girls become victims of sexual abuse and harassment while staying in shelter homes. This also makes them unwilling for taking shelter in public cyclone shelters. Disaster also increases early marriage, dowry and domestic violence due to men’s loss of earning source, unemployment and their frustration.

Micro-credit is the main source of borrowing money for poor people of rural Bangladesh to recover their economic loss that occurs after disaster. The existing microcredit system dominated by non-governmental organizations prefers women as clients. These gender-biased arrangements sometimes put women into deeper poverty instead of overcoming the crisis. Many evidences showed that women lent money for their husbands or male members to run small business or agriculture production but men left leaving behind the family. In that situation the helpless women required to take loan from other loan providers to repay the money. Thus they got trapped in a vicious poverty cycle due to the consequence of disaster-poverty nexus.

In South Asia Bangladesh is well known for its disaster management. Despite many aspects of gender inequality women have proven their potentiality to manage during disaster situation and to reconstruct their family as well as community during post disaster situation. Though traditional views consider women as the victims of disaster, practically, after disaster women play a vital role in rebuilding the social and family life. They perform their triple protagonist — productive, reproductive and community — role.

Besides, women play key preventive role as well — their local knowledge is useful during and after disaster, they have survival and coping skills in emergencies. So inclusion of women in the post disaster plans, programmes and activities can bring a positive result to handle the situation more effectively. Women can bring new innovative ideas from their practical coping strategies and experiences. Thus women’s involvement and inclusion are equally important and essential for effective disaster risk reduction and disaster management.


The writer is an assistant director, Department of Women Affairs.
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Source: thedailystar





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