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International Women's Day: Women bear the brunt of disaster

by Rowan Harvey, Women's Rights Advocacy Advisor

It’s a sad truth that when conflict and disasters strike, their impact is shouldered by the poorest and most marginalised, and as 70% of the world’s poorest people are female, it is women and girls that are most affected.

In the Pakistan floods in 2012 85% of the people displaced were women and children. In many of the areas affected by the Asian Tsunami in 2004, women were up to three times more likely to die than men.

Following disasters, resources become scarcer and there is usually a general breakdown in the ability of the state to keep law and order. Women, who had less to begin with and have to struggle to compete for a share of available resources, also face increases in rates of sexual and gender based violence. In temporary camps in Haiti, women already traumatised by their experiences in the earthquake were forced to endure further trauma as a result of increases in rapes and sexual assaults.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to meet and talk with a group of women involved in an agricultural collective run by ActionAid in Liberia, a country still reeling from the effects of a long and brutal civil war. The women told stories of fleeing the fighting and returning to find their homes destroyed and their fields ruined. They also told of the violence they and other women in their villages were forced to endure at the hands of militia, many of whom were boys and men they already knew and had grown up with as neighbours in their communities. The difficulties they have faced in rebuilding their lives are unimaginable but their strength and dignity were what impressed me most.

The disproportionate impact of disasters and emergencies on women and girls is starting to be recognised by donors and humanitarian actors. For ActionAid, this has meant a commitment to prioritise the needs of women and children in our response work, which in practical terms has ranged from providing safe spaces in the immediate aftermath to supporting women to secure the resources they are entitled to, such as through government compensation schemes.

It’s a priority for our advocacy work as well, which has long had a particular focus on violence against women and girls. We’re working to raise the issue up the international agenda through forums such as this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women in March and through our work with governments in over 40 countries.

Much of the suffering that follows disasters and emergencies is actually man-made; neither inevitable or acceptable. By working before disasters happen to raise the status of women and girls, ensure their rights are respected in their communities and build their power, resilience and ability to withstand shocks, we can dramatically reduce the depth and duration of the effects of disasters and build a fairer and more prosperous future.