24-30 June 2016 #814

Engendering relief

After the earthquake we need to rebuild better, not just houses but also lives
Sangita Thebe-Limbu
Bikram Rai

Following the major earthquakes in 2015, Nepal’s National Planning Commission (NPC) issued a Post-Disaster Needs Assessment report that strongly emphasised ‘building back better’ as the guiding principle for recovery and reconstruction. But what does this catchphrase really mean?

Most recommendations in the report focus primarily on technical interventions such as reconstruction of physical assets, enhanced communication capacities and logistics, risk monitoring, vulnerability assessment, and improved legal and institutional arrangements. However, the impact of disasters and processes of recovery is embedded in unequal power structures, and therefore needs to be addressed by taking into account vulnerabilities and inequalities.

Disasters such as earthquakes are natural phenomena, but their impact is not. Various studies have shown that the effect of a natural disaster is unevenly distributed, and pre-existing inequalities and discrimination along the lines of gender, caste, class, ethnicity and disability are exacerbated and further reinforced in the relief and reconstruction phase.

An extensive study on natural disasters between 1981 and 2002 in 141 countries showed that in societies where the socio-economic status of women is low, calamities directly or indirectly killed more women than men. In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 80 per cent of the deceased were women and girls. Following the recent earthquakes in Nepal, 55 per cent of those who lost their lives were women and girls, in comparison with 45 per cent being men and boys.

In the case of the 2004 tsunami, more women and children died as they were inside homes, in contrast to men who were out in the fields. Women’s limited access to public spaces where information about disasters are given, social norms of modesty whereby women and girls are discouraged from activities such as running, swimming and climbing trees, and traditional clothing like saris that hinder women’s swift mobility also influenced survival during the disaster.

In the context of Nepal, the higher female mortality rate during the earthquakes can be attributed to numerous factors such as male migration to the capital city and abroad, and women’s caretaking responsibilities resulting in a higher likelihood of women and girls being at home. In many cases, women were reported to have delayed their escape to rescue their children, older family members and valuables.

Being a woman does not in itself lead to higher vulnerability.It is the socially constructed gender norms like assignment of roles, responsibilities and ‘appropriate’ behaviours, along with unequal distribution of resources, rather than biological differences.

Gendered vulnerability is derived from intersecting identities and social relationships, so it is equally important to consider other identity factors — such as class, caste, age, location, marital status, sexual orientation, political affiliation, ethnic identity, religion, language, and absence or presence of disability — which influence the severity of the impact of disasters. This does not mean creating a checklist or doing an additive exercise, but instead understanding how different socially constructed identities interact to create different experiences of vulnerability.

For example, a blanket approach to post-earthquake relief distribution resulted, in many cases, in those with political links and social status accessing the bulk of the resources. A study conducted during the relief phase showed that discrimination based on caste or political affiliation was perceived as one of the main reasons for unfairness in aid. Historical marginalisation and systemic exclusion have aggravated pre-existing vulnerabilities for many Dalits, Tamang and minority communities post-disaster.

Single women faced a unique set of challenges further complicated by geographical location, as many women — due to childcare responsibilities — found it difficult to make the long journey to local administrative centres to access relief. Only 19.7 per cent of land and houses is under female ownership, which makes it difficult for many women to directly access funds to rebuild their houses.

With thousands of health centres and hospitals destroyed, it became especially problematic for pregnant women to access sexual and reproductive healthcare. In makeshift temporary shelters, women and girls faced added risks in terms of security, and lack of privacy and sanitary facilities. The prevailing social stigma against sexual and gender minorities was exacerbated as transgender users of segregated sanitary facilities in Kathmandu camps feared sexual harassment and encountered abuse.

In urban areas like Kathmandu, many casual labourers — predominantly men, and living in poor quality houses — were highly vulnerable to disaster risk, yet in the aftermath compensation funds went to household owners and not tenants who were directly affected.

The earthquakes have affected all social groups. However, identity and power relations make the experiences of vulnerabilities and risks different and complex. The focus should be on the inequities in daily life — and not just in times of disaster — when we strive to ‘build back better’, because yes, we need to rebuild houses but we also need to rebuild lives.

Read also

Women still waiting to rebuild homes and lives, Shreejana Shrestha

Female refugees of Nepal’s earthquake, Karma Gurung

Quakes and women, Binita Marhatta

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