The frequency and ferocity of these natural disasters has been increasing over the past years eventually resulting in widespread displacement and destruction and no country wheresoever is immune to these cataclysmic events. Recent flooding in Pakistan which has made headlines across the globe has mostly ravaged the rural areas, literally washed away complete villages, and left behind a humanitarian emergency. In Pakistan alone 33 million were displaced and approximately causing 1600 deaths. Although these disasters have devastated entire populations but at the same time people’s access to key resources during times of disaster is determined by various factors such as ethnic groups, age, gender etc. Hence, we observe that the challenges for womenfolk in particular have amplified, leaving them on the verge of health catastrophe.
Women in Pakistan particularly in rural areas are not only handicapped and discriminated but also constrained by quite rigid gender norms. They not only fulfil their domestic duties but also take on the responsibility of providing economic support by engaging in agricultural related activities. Unfortunately, these hard-working women who are quite efficient in multitasking suffer unemployment during floods thereby exposing them to lack of economic security.
At the same time violence also becomes manifold during disaster settings, further deteriorating their vulnerabilities. Economic insecurity plays a major role in increasing social vulnerability amongst women, thus making them less capable of surviving in hazard prone regions. They are unfortunately disproportionately employed in rather underpaid jobs and thus making them far less capable to survive disasters. Floods have tended to further worsen the economic vulnerability of these women as they tend to lose work opportunities and agriculture related work also tends to decrease dramatically as floods tend to destroy crops.
Women and children are also more likely to receive far more casualties during disasters and mortality rates are also higher than men. Basic mobility issues during floods are a challenging experience for women as they are not equipped with basic life saving skills, therefore they tend to suffer more physical injuries while evacuating their dwellings. As per World economic forum’s Global Gender Gap Index Report, Pakistan was ranked as the second worst country with respect to gender parity. During the recent floods, women’s hygiene and sanitation related issues have also been a cause of concern as shelter homes or flood relieved tents failed to address appropriate sanitation requirements including clean water. At the same time, women were unable to manage their periods due to homelessness.
Pregnant and postpartum women have been especially vulnerable in these dire situations as they have encountered difficulties in acquiring required medical facilities. As pre and postnatal care is severely obstructed during floods, thereby increasing risks of miscarriages, premature deliveries, etc. which eventually are a cause of severe mental health problems amongst the affected. Floods have posed particularly acute challenges for women as they are deprived of a safe place for giving birth, thus exposing them to dangers of hazardous and life-threatening conditions, resulting in increased risk of physical trauma.
During recent floods in Pakistan, pregnant women had to cope with inadequate medical facilities, especially with reference to maternal health services. Lack of skilled birth attendants, lady health workers, new-born care and support plus damage to infrastructure for instance bridges and roads, further exacerbated the already fractured health services for vulnerable women. UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, estimates that approximately 650 000 pregnant women in flood affected areas require maternal health services. Secondly lack of community help magnified the already daunting situation for these vulnerable women. They were unable to leave their camps for urgent medical care as they could not leave behind their small children unattended, thus further restricting their access to medical care. The displacement of these vulnerable women from their respective villages deprived them of the otherwise community help.
At the same time malnourishment due to lack of access to food and safe water has taken a visible toll on their health. Besides, poor sanitation posed further threats to these mothers by exposing them to infectious diseases such as diarrhoea, respiratory infections, malaria etc.
Besides other challenging situations women, after natural disasters also face various forms of violence and trauma as they are exposed to an increased risk of sexual assaults. As basic resources and law enforcement agencies which protect women from violence are not readily available hence these women are unable to seek necessary medical and psychological care, thus further adding insult to injury. The plight of these flood affected women does not end even after the end of the disaster. It is observed that women continue to face gender-based inequalities during the rehabilitation phase when the flood affectees are compensated for their economic losses.
Unfortunately, womenfolk are mostly neglected and excluded during this vital phase. Male members are usually provided all the available monetary compensations overlooking the female members of the household and thus making the process of rehabilitation gender insensitive. Therefore, its crucial to contribute towards policies which promote gender equality ensuring women’s wellbeing.
Legislative reforms are also required for vulnerable women who lack opportunities and resources during flood recovery phases for their effective rehabilitation. These reforms would ensure women securing relief assets, renovation of their small businesses, prevention of violence against women etc. With respect to women’s vulnerability, gender specific data is required to address the specific concerns and impacts of natural hazards. By identifying these specific vulnerabilities , necessary coping strategies need to be generated which will eventually help women to cope during crisis, for instance providing clothing and hygiene supplies , availability of basic medical supplies, anti-violence services etc.
At the same time long term economic recovery for these floods affected women is highly desirable where certain projects can be introduced which would not only facilitate in increasing job opportunities for these women but also help them in acquiring necessary skills for survival.
Disaster management authorities in Pakistan should also tend to focus more on gender specific methods promoting human and social recovery, climate education and skill development. For this purpose, partnering with local NGO’s and other women-based groups can prove fruitful for the purpose of reconstruction and rehabilitation. Government can also play their due role by allocating due amounts of funds for the purpose of rehabilitation, whereas national media can help in highlighting the needs and requirements of these flood affected.
As resources are comparatively scarce coupled with reduced managing devices during the post disaster recovery phase, nevertheless respective individuals, social welfare agencies and government sector altogether can act responsibly in order to increase the potential of effective and successful service by taking appropriate actions, thereby minimising the negative impacts associated with these natural disasters and tragedies.