Why girls are 14 times more likely to die in a natural disaster

By Jennifer Yang

In 1991, as Bangladesh was being battered by one of the deadliest tropical cyclones ever recorded, a desperate father clung to his two children: his son under one arm, his daughter under the other.

But the tidal waves were too powerful and the father realized he could no longer hold onto both. He had to make a choice: he let his daughter go.

“This son,” he later told researchers, “has to carry on the family line.”

This story is recounted in a new report by Plan International that examines discrimination against girls in times of flood, hurricane, earthquake and drought.

The report, titled In Double Jeopardy: Adolescent Girls and Disasters, found that not only are girls less likely to be rescued than their brothers, they are also fed less food, less likely to return to school and more vulnerable to rape, prostitution and child marriage.

“(Girls) are already in normal times more vulnerable, more disadvantaged, more excluded from decision making,” said Rosemary McCarney, president and CEO of Plan Canada. “So when disasters or emergencies occur, this is magnified manifold.

“If you’re female, you’re 14 times more likely to die in a disaster than a man. That’s a very big number.”

The report is the seventh in the “Because I Am a Girl” series, which was launched in 2007. For this year’s report, Plan International chose to focus on disasters, in part because they have become so frequent. The last decade alone has seen nearly 450 disasters each year, McCarney noted. This is a fivefold increase from the ’70s, when there were about 90 disasters a year.

Natural disasters are commonly viewed as “great equalizers,” indiscriminate forces that kill the rich and poor alike. But in reality, nine out of 10 disasters occur in the developing world, and catastrophes tend to kill more women, especially those of poor socioeconomic status.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, killed four times as many women than men in Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia, according to a study by Oxfam — in part, because many women in this region never learned to swim or climb trees.

But little research has been devoted to examining how disasters affect girls specifically. By combing through studies and doing their own digging, researchers with Plan International uncovered several examples of how girls have been disproportionately affected by disasters.

For instance, disasters leave adolescent girls more vulnerable to sexual assault, gender-based violence and unplanned pregnancies. Following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, for example, pregnancy rates in camps were three times higher than before the disaster. Two-thirds of them were unplanned and unwanted.

When disaster strikes, girls are also more likely to enter child marriages, “which parents may see as a way of keeping their daughters safe in troubled times,” the report says.

It is also not uncommon for girls to resort to “transactional” sex to fulfil basic needs like food, protection or even sanitary napkins.

“It’s hard,” said Anna, a 13-year-old in the Philippines who survived Typhoon Ondoy in 2009 and is quoted in the report. “Others have nothing to eat,” she said, “and they embrace being involved in bad acts just to have something to eat.”

Pre-existing gender inequalities also tend to affect girls in the aftermath of weather disasters. After the 2010 floods in Pakistan, a study of eight rural schools found 24 per cent of Grade 6 girls dropped out versus 6 per cent of boys.

Surveys in Ethiopia also found that boys were encouraged to eat more in times of food scarcity, the assumption being that boys need more energy whereas girls are “expected to be moderate/reserved reflecting a ‘womanly etiquette.’ ”

Even humanitarian workers can be “gender-blind,” the report pointed out. An online survey of 318 humanitarian staff found that roughly one-third of “needs assessment teams” lacked any female staff members — perhaps unsurprising, then, that only 29 per cent also reported installing facilities for menstrual hygiene in their disaster response.

Part of the solution is to involve more girls and women in disaster planning and response, the report said.

Another solution is for humanitarian and development agencies to collaborate better. The two streams have traditionally operated in silos but more collaboration will mean better results for girls, whether in the weeks after an earthquake or in the months and years that follow.

“We know for a fact that an investment in girls is the best anti-poverty measure that we can choose,” said Jo Scheuer, co-ordinator of disaster risk reduction with the United Nations Development Program. “After a crisis, where vulnerabilities are higher, it is even more important.”


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