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Women in disasters - BRI

Updated: Wed, 5 Jun 2013

In detailBack to top

Women suffer disproportionately during a crisis, whether it is war, famine or a natural disaster like earthquakes and floods.

The majority of civilian casualties in conflicts are women and children, and sexual violence can be used as a method of war. The death rate of women after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was at least three times higher than that of men in some communities. Women experience a heavy burden during and after disasters because they are often responsible for providing food and water for their families.

But the main reason why they are particularly vulnerable during a crisis is because of their status before disaster strikes. They are generally poorer than men, have little political voice, are often less mobile for cultural reasons, they do not own land, and are less likely than men to have an education or access to health care.

But women are not just victims, they are also survivors who can help countries recover more quickly from natural disasters and conflict. They often have a unique ability to build bridges between warring communities, and they can find ways to protect communities from the worst effects of future disasters. But in many cases they are excluded from discussions on these issues, and their particular needs are often left out of both recovery plans and the terms of peace agreements.

Women and conflictBack to top

Spiralling violence against women in war zones prompted one peacekeeper, Major General Patrick Cammaert, to comment in 2008 that it is "now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflicts".

Rape has always been used as a weapon of war, but the brutality inflicted on women in some humanitarian hotspots today is unprecedented, many experts say.

The brutality accompanying rape in Democratic Republic of Congo is a frequently cited example, but sexual violence has been used as a weapon in many other conflicts around the world. In Rwanda, up to 500,000 women were raped during the 1994 genocide. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped during the 1990s conflict there.

The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) says one reason why brutality against women during and after conflicts has become so much worse is because the nature of war has changed. Most conflicts today are not between countries; they are within countries, pitting communities along racial, religious and/or ethnic lines. The result is that civilian populations are victimised on a massive scale and now make up the majority of war casualties. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the majority of casualties in conflicts since 1990 have been civilians – many of them women and children.

To some extent, armies observe rules of conduct that militias and rebel groups do not – although, of course, soldiers also rape. Sexual violence is an effective weapon because it forces populations to flee and breaks down communities. Fear of attack prevents women from working in fields and fetching water and firewood or taking goods to market, and it stops children going to school. And, as Amnesty International says, rape is cheaper than bullets.

There have also been reports of U.N. peacekeepers raping civilians, and humanitarian workers demanding sexual favours in return for aid.

For girls and women, the psychological, physical and social effects can last a lifetime. Unlike other crimes, communities often stigmatise the victim of rape rather than the perpetrator. Wives may be rejected by their husbands and girls rendered unmarriageable. Some victims are babies.

But reporting rape is often seen as pointless and may make things worse.

In October 2000, the U.N. Security Council passed a landmark resolution which for the first time explicitly linked women to peace and security. The resolution recognised that women in conflict are often targets for specific forms of violence, and said they must be included in peacemaking. A decade later, the U.N. secretary-general appointed a special representative to tackle violence against women and children in war zones.

The U.N. Development Programme's Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery has launched a strategy to address the needs of women affected by conflicts and natural disasters (see next section).

The aims include protecting women from violence, ensuring they have access to justice, strengthening women's representation, promoting equality and urging governments to work for women. The campaign also includes ensuring that women participate in politics and have access to business, credit and land.

Only 22 percent of peace agreements signed in 2010 and 2011 included a provision for women’s peace and security, according to UNDP.

But empowering women is not just a question of fairness. It can also speed up recovery. Some experts say they are often among the first to rebuild, and probably contribute more than governments or aid agencies to reconciliation, reviving local economies and rebuilding social networks.

Natural disastersBack to top

Natural disasters often kill many more women than men. For example, three times as many women died in the 2005 Pakistan earthquake as men. Why? Because women in the deeply conservative areas rarely venture far from their homes. They were more likely to be indoors and died when their homes collapsed on top of them.

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami many regions found the death toll among women was three or four times higher than men. Women and girls were less likely to know how to swim, and their garments may have hindered them from running or clambering onto roofs or up trees.

Droughts can place an extra burden on women, who are often responsible for providing water and food for their families. Women's livelihoods may also be more vulnerable in disasters. For example, in some Caribbean countries women depend entirely on a single crop. When a hurricane strikes, their income is wiped out until they can sow and harvest again. By contrast, men are more able to find paid work, travelling to towns and cities if necessary.

Women are typically responsible for their children. And if they can't put food on the table they may end up selling sex, which in turn increases their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.

Women are also at increased risk of sexual and physical violence after natural disasters. This is partly because social mores collapse with the destruction of traditional communities and partly because of the high levels of frustration in camps for displaced people. With no means to support their family, men may take their anger out on women.

Domestic and sexual violence were both reported to have increased in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Examples from Sri Lanka include women who were battered because they resisted their husbands selling their jewellery, or disputed their use of tsunami relief funds, or were blamed for the deaths of their children.

PovertyBack to top

Women are more vulnerable than men before, during and after disasters. That's because women experience the brunt of the world's poverty, with serious implications for their health and livelihoods. They have less access to food, water, shelter, education, income, land, health care and basic human rights.

In west Sudan's Darfur region, where conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes to displacement camps, women work all day to provide for their families and risk attack and rape by armed groups in their daily search for firewood. "Darfurian women are the ones who generate income and hand it over to their husbands who sit the whole day in the shade conversing and drinking tea," says a report by the African Union/United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) on the role of peacekeepers in protecting women in the conflict.

The majority of the world's poor are women, according to the U.N. Millennium Campaign and the gap between women and men trapped in poverty is widening, a phenomenon sometimes called the feminisation of poverty.

Women are often denied access to resources such as credit, land and inheritance. Their lack of education also limits their ability to better their situation – millions of girls miss out on a primary education and the majority of illiterate young people are women.

And with few positions of power, women have little chance of rectifying these inequalities.

In 2000, governments committed to a set of poverty reduction goals, including halving poverty and hunger, providing every child with primary education and cutting maternal mortality, by the year 2015.

The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals report 2012 says addressing violence against women, as well as the inequalities they face are key to meeting the MDGs.

ActionAid argues that systematic discrimination against girls and women in poor countries prevents the United Nations meeting these goals. In its report Hit or miss? Women's rights and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the agency said empowering women and girls is not just a question of justice but is the most effective route to reducing poverty.

Land and labour

One major factor contributing to women's poverty is land. In many places women can only access land via men – husbands, brothers etc – which means they are dependent on these relationships for their survival. Lack of rights to land also affects women's access to food. Female-headed households are more likely to suffer chronic hunger than other groups.

A global conference on women in Beijing in 1995 called on countries to undertake legislative and administrative reforms to give women equal access to economic resources, including the right to inheritance and to own land. However, progress has been slow. Only a few countries have changed their laws to make it possible for women to inherit land.

Aid agencies say protecting women's land rights in parts of Africa badly affected by AIDS is crucial to preventing rural households from slipping further into poverty. If a woman loses property or land when her husband dies it may limit her ability to feed her family and force her children out of school and into work.

Not only do women earn far less than men, but often their labour goes completely unrewarded. For example, women and girls in Africa spend some 40 billion hours collecting water each year, according to ActionAid.


With no property or other collateral, women in developing countries find it difficult to secure loans to build small businesses and improve their lot.

Providing credit, especially microcredit, has proved a successful strategy for lifting women out of poverty.

The most famous example is Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Economist Muhammad Yunus set up the bank in 1976 to lend to the neediest, enabling them to start small businesses without collateral. In doing so, he pioneered microcredit, a system now copied around the world.

Nearly all its borrowers are women – a complete reversal of conventional banking which focuses on men.

"We saw that money that went to women brought so much more benefit to the family than the same amount going to the family through the man," Yunus says.

Analysts say households where women have borrowed from institutions like Grameen have been shown to invest more in education, nutrition and shelter, with broad knock-on effects.

HealthBack to top

Poverty, war and disasters all put a greater strain on women's health.

Every two minutes a woman dies of complications due to pregnancy and childbirth, and 99 percent of those deaths happen in developing countries. Yet most are easily preventable.

The good news is that between 1990 and 2010, the number of such deaths nearly halved.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of children lose their mothers because of maternal death, which has repercussions for their health and safety.

For every woman who dies during pregnancy, many others suffer serious injuries in childbirth, which can blight their lives permanently. One of the most distressing is fistula, which is caused by obstructed labour. The baby usually dies, and the woman is left with chronic incontinence. Because of her inability to control her urine or faeces, she is often abandoned by her husband and family and ostracised by her community. Without work or family, she may be forced to rely on charity.

Another condition is uterine prolapse where the womb falls out of the body. It can be caused by multiple births in quick succession. It is not only painful and embarrassing, but can be fatal in some cases.

Aside from pregnancy-related complications, women in many developing countries are often more vulnerable to HIV infection than men. Women make up the majority of people living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). The World Health Organization (WHO) explains here some of the reasons behind what has been called the feminisation of AIDS.

Another health issue is female circumcision – or female genital mutilation (FGM) – which partially or totally removes a girl's external genitalia for cultural and religious reasons. About 140 million girls and women are living with its consequences, says WHO.

The procedure can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, as well as infections from unclean cutting instruments. Long-term, women may suffer repeated urinary tract infections, infertility, increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths. If FGM involves narrowing or closing the vaginal opening, it has to be cut open to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth.

Proponents say it reduces sexual desire and keeps women faithful.

LinksBack to top

Stop Rape Now is a joint United Nations initiative has lots of useful reports on the issue.

Amnesty International has a useful page on women in conflict.

The NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security – a consortium of 16 non governmental organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Alert and International Rescue Committee – has lots of useful news and background information.

Women for Women International is a U.S. organisation which helps survivors of war rebuild their lives. It has information, statistics and videos on conflicts from Afghanistan to Congo.

For general information on women and the Millennium Development Goals go to the End Poverty 2015 Millennium Campaign.

British aid agency ActionAid does a lot of work on alleviating poverty among women. Its report Hit or miss? Women's rights and the Millennium Development Goals argues that tackling the barriers that prevent women escaping poverty is crucial to progress in meeting the targets. See also ActionAid's section on women.

For more information on women and poverty visit U.N. Women. It has in-depth reports and a useful introduction to the issues.

For more on microcredit have a look at the Grameen Foundation website.

If you're looking for general information on women and health visit the World Health Organization. For info on the impact of HIV/AIDS on women visit WHO's page on gender inequalities and HIV. U.N. Women also has sections on women’s equality and HIV/AIDS and on halting the spread of HIV/AIDS. And UNAIDS – the U.N. organisation that focuses on HIV/AIDS – has a useful section on eliminating gender inequalities.

The U.N. website on Millennium Development Goals has a section on maternal health. Click here for a useful report packed with statistics. They also have updates with maps and charts.

For more information on tackling maternal mortality have a look at the U.N. Population Fund's page stepping up efforts to save mothers' lives.

Women pray for victims of the March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami disaster in Japan
Harvesting machines can be seen working during the opening ceremony of the Grain Harvest in Caseara, Brazil
A man is seen running after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus
Boy and his sister who both suffer from cancer lie on a bed at a cancer treatment center in Sanaa