Collateral damage: Indian women and vulnerability to disasters
As rising temperatures increase the frequency of natural catastrophes in India, policymakers must consider how gender inequalities amplify their effects. Women experience higher mortality rates, have lesser access to relief measures, and are more susceptible to violence.
By JOYITA R CHOWDHURY & PRARTHNA A GOEL
NEW DELHI: Of the many natural disasters that afflict India each year, floods are by far the most prevalent. This is no surprise, given that around 40 million hectares of land in the country are prone to flooding, and nearly 75% of the annual rainfall comes in the space of a few months. But as rising temperatures increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters, floods in India have become deadlier and more destructive (relatedly, cyclones have grown more intense). The country has the highest number of flood-related fatalities in Asia, and the economic damage caused by flooding has swelled from nearly $1.4 billion in 2013 to $11.5 billion in 2020.
While this escalation has upended the lives of many rural Indians, who account for 65% of the population, women have borne the brunt of its impact. There are many reasons why natural disasters disproportionately affect women in India.
For starters, they comprise a significant share of the agricultural sector’s workforce. In 2021-22, 57.3% of working-age women in India were employed in agriculture, compared to 34.4% of men.
Despite a structural employment shift to non-agricultural sectors, many rural women have been unable to take advantage of these opportunities, owing to limited resources and mobility restrictions. Working on family farms or as agricultural wage labourers, they are exposed to the economic volatility caused by floods and other extreme weather.
Moreover, since only 14% of women in India own land, very few have the ability to adapt and respond to climate change. Family responsibilities, as well as other constraints imposed by traditional cultural practices and patriarchal social norms, reinforce this dynamic by preventing women from participating in activities – including non-agricultural employment – outside the household.
This, in turn, makes women more vulnerable to flooding than men: they have higher mortality rates and less access to relief measures.
Besides the immediate threat to their lives and livelihoods, women are more susceptible to violence in the wake of a natural disaster: a global systematic review has found an increase in rape, sexual assault, and human trafficking in such situations around the world.
In the months following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, for example, the percentage of women in southern Mississippi reporting intimate partner violence (IPV) increased from 33.6% to 45.2%, and low-income mothers were relocated to temporary mass shelters that many viewed as unsafe for themselves and their children.
Likewise, research based on National Family Health Surveys has shown a rise in IPV in four Indian states after the 2004 tsunami, with physical and sexual violence increasing by 61% and 232%, respectively, in Tamil Nadu and emotional violence increasing by 122% in Karnataka.
Moreover, between 2010 and 2019, floods in the Indian state of Bihar damaged more than half a million houses, forcing residents to move to temporary refugee camps where women faced verbal and sexual harassment.
Violence against women is deeply rooted in social and structural problems, such as their lower socioeconomic status, gender-based disparities in resource distribution, unsafe environments, and limited access to support services, all of which can be exacerbated by natural disasters.
For example, loss of employment from such catastrophes can weaken households’ bargaining power and cause psychological and financial stress for men, often leading to an increase in alcohol and drug use – typical triggers of IPV. Women are even more constrained than before, and yet the same social and cultural barriers that prevent their shift to non-agricultural employment remain intact, precluding them from engaging in economic decision-making.
Disasters not only increase IPV but also make communities unsafe. Adolescent girls are at high risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, mainly because of their dependence on others. Makeshift camps that serve displaced people are often rife with crime.
Men seek sexual favours in exchange for basic needs such as food, water, and shelter, and women are often raped and sexually assaulted.
Moreover, traveling long distances to collect firewood and drinking water, as well as unreliable street lighting, only leads to higher rates of victimization. The long-term effects of floods and other natural catastrophes are equally devastating.
The economic shock caused by such a disaster can create an environment of negative growth for women who have been socially and economically deprived.
For example, flood damage usually precipitates a dramatic and sustained fall in agricultural employment, severely constraining women’s future opportunities outside the home. To prevent natural disasters from disproportionately harming Indian women, the government must enact laws that curb gender-based violence, such as liquor bans, as well as policies that improve police responsiveness, such as staffing stations with female officers.
Securing greater economic independence will also be essential, and policymakers must work with other stakeholders to ensure that women have access to alternative employment opportunities, including in the dairy industry and other agriculture-adjacent sectors.
Moreover, officials should hire women to help run evacuation shelters and include them in disaster planning.
The International Rescue Committee should collaborate with local government, NGOs, and individuals – particularly women – to develop strategies that rein in gender-based discrimination and violence during natural disaster recovery.
Through a direct transfer of relief funds to affected women, governments and international organizations can empower them to leave abusive relationships and focus on developing their own skills.
The recent catastrophic floods in Libya, which have taken thousands of lives and forced thousands more to leave their homes, illustrate the urgent and ongoing global threat posed by extreme weather.
In India and elsewhere, the focus must be on addressing pre-existing gender inequalities and violence to limit the initial damage of such disasters and reduce the subsequent risks of displacement and migration. As women become resilient, societies become more resilient, too.