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#MalawiFloods – the gendered nature of “natural” disasters (all images by @thokoscribes)

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With close to 200 lives claimed and thousands of people internally displaced, the #MalawiFloods certainly qualify as a disaster. Homes have been washed away, entire villages stand submerged in water.  . The government has declared the floods a national disaster – thereby mobilising international attention, assistance and financial aid.

My question is, with all the efforts going to dealing with the impact of the floods, how much (time/money/politics) are we willing to spend to reduce the vulnerability of its victims? And , more importantly, are we doing enough to recognise, highlight and mitigate the gender impact of this natural disaster?

In relation to the #MalawiFloods some may ask – why focus on gender? why this talk about women? Some of the reasons include that,

  • we have more and more women living alone and more women heading households; often leaving women impoverished and socially isolated, less able to receive or act on disaster warnings or recovery information;
  • as primary natural resource users and managers, women are highly affected by environmental degradation;
  • male dominance in disaster decisions and ideological constraints can limit women’s access to life-saving public shelters and aid;
  • the caregiving roles of women are intensified during and in the aftermath of a crisis…
#MalawiFloods images copyright Thoko Chikondi @thokoscribes

#MalawiFloods images copyright Thoko Chikondi @thokoscribes

The effects of disaster do not impact all members of society equally and the gendered terrain within which the floods occurred matters. Gender matters in the construction of hazards and disasters.

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@wfp meeting immediate food needs of the people affected by #MalawiFloods pic.twitter.com/xPoXaonTF5 picture via @thokoscribes

Canon (1994) argues that there are human connections between the two: hazards are natural, but in general, disasters are not. Canon goes so far as to posit that the environment is itself a social construct – opportunities and risk are fashioned by the varying characteristics of different types of social system, and the differing demands that each society puts on nature, combined with the varying impacts that nature may have on varying types of social system. There are no really generalised opportunities and risks in nature, but instead there are sets of unequal access to opportunities and unequal exposures to risks which are a consequence of the socio-economic system. (Canon, 1994: 14).

Disasters are complex social events: the fact that the Malawi Government did not have an adequate disaster-preparedness plan despite the well-known hazards of the affected region illustrates the social nature of the #MalawiFloods.

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#MalawiFloods images via @thokoscribes

Many disaster losses—rather than stemming from unexpected events—are the predictable result of interactions among three major systems: the physical environment, which includes hazardous events; the social and demographic characteristics of the communities that experience them; and the buildings, roads, bridges, and other components of the constructed environment. (Mileti, 1999).

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Life at relief camps: #Children #MalawiFloods pic.twitter.com/w5gXCq5Wsr via @thokoscribes

” Human beings—not nature—are the cause of disaster losses, which stem from choices about where and how human development will proceed.” (Mileti, 1999).

Are we, as Malawians, putting enough emphasis on the human linkages between natural hazards and disastrous outcomes? Hazards are natural, but for a hazard to become a disaster it has to affect vulnerable people AND it is vulnerable people who are the victims of disasters. (Canon, 1994). Are we paying enough attention to the ways in which the political and economic processes in Malawi work to generate varying levels of risk among different people? Vulnerability in this instance is created through a combination of class, gender and ethnicity – “[i]n addition to the poor and economically insecure, those most vulnerable are subordinated ethnic or racial groups, the frail elderly or disabled, infants and young children, and socially excluded groups like undocumented workers, the homeless, and street children. Often neglected in the list of at-risk groups, women and girls, too, are highly vulnerable in disasters.” (Enarson,2000:4)

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#MalawiFloods images by @thokoscribes

The gender relations in Malawi (as happens the world over) create social conditions which leave the majority of Malawian women in substandard housing, socially marginalized, impoverished or economically insecure, overburdened with care giving responsibilities, and lacking social power and political voice.

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#MalawiFloods images by @thokoscribes

Women’s economic vulnerability, which is already extreme, is likely to be exacerbated by the floods. Placing those affected in a position of extreme dependency on disaster relief – but in the end power differentials of gender, age, marital status, family structure, dependent care responsibilities and access to transportation will have a profound impact upon who ultimately accesses and benefits from assistance programs.

At the same time, we must all be leery of casting women only in the role of the victim. They are feeding their families and those affected; they are involved in assessing and communicating disaster warnings; they take on the emotional work of comforting spouses, children, and dependent elders; they are out there picking up the floating pieces and helping to rebuild their communities and their lives.

References

  • Cannon, Terry (1993). A hazard need not a disaster make: vulnerability and the causes of ‘natural’disasters. Natural disasters: protecting vulnerable communities. Thomas Telford, London. 92-105.
  • Cannon, Terry (1994). Vulnerability analysis and the explanation of ‘natural’disasters. Disasters, development and environment, 13-30.
  • Enarson, Elaine & Morrow, Betty Hearn (1998) “Why gender? Why women? An introduction to women and disaster” The gendered terrain of disaster: Through women’s eyes (1998): 1-8.
  • Enarson, Elaine & Morrow, Betty Hearn (1998). The gendered terrain of disaster: Through women’s eyes. Praeget, New York.
  • Enarson, Elaine (2000) “ILO InFocus Programme on Crisis Response and Reconstruction, Working Paper 1: Gender and Natural Disasters” Recovery and Reconstruction Department, Geneva
  • Enarson, Elaine, Alice Fothergill, and Lori Peek (2007) “Gender and disaster: Foundations and directions.” Handbook of disaster research. Springer New York. 130-146.
  • Mileti, Dennis (1999) Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States Joseph Henry Press, New York

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. This is a very good article Sarai, we must always remember that due to the social position of women, their vulnerability are un presented in times like these beside alot of social and moral duties they are to discharge aswell for their famililies and communities.

    Liked by 1 person

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