This article examines the vulnerability of girls and women to dying from natural disasters and their aftermath. Looking at the effects of natural disasters in 141 countries over the period 1981 to 2002, the study shows that in societies where the socioeconomic status of women is low, natural disasters kill more women than men, both directly and indirectly via related post-disaster events. They also kill women at a younger age than men. The reason for the difference in mortality lies largely in the everyday socioeconomic status of women.
Natural disasters do not affect people equally. Inequalities in exposure and sensitivity to risk as well as inequalities in access to resources, capabilities and opportunities systematically disadvantage certain groups of people, making them more vulnerable to the impact of natural disasters.
Social norms and role behaviours provide some explanation for the difference in mortality between men and women. However, the socially constructed gender-specific vulnerability of females, which is built into everyday socioeconomic patterns, is the chief reason for the higher female disaster mortality rates:
- Since female life expectancy is generally higher than that of males, for most countries natural disasters narrow the gender gap in life expectancy.
- The stronger the disaster (as approximated by the number of people killed relative to population size), the stronger this effect on the gender gap in life expectancy.
- The adverse impact of disasters on females relative to men vanishes with rising socioeconomic status of women.
The interplay between mortality and gender in natural disasters is not yet fully understood, nor is the way in which disaster strength interacts with mortality in general and with female mortality in particular. However, the evidence suggests that a vulnerability approach to natural disasters needs to be adopted:
- Governments and development agencies need to go beyond technical fixes in dealing with natural disasters.
- Although the underlying cultural, social, and economic patterns that lead to a low socioeconomic status of women and thereby generate their specific vulnerability to natural disasters are not easy to deal with, it should not be thought that nothing can be done.
- Policymakers, NGOs and academics need to pay closer attention to the gendered nature of disaster vulnerability. Attention should focus on the special medical, economic and security needs of women in the aftermath of disasters, as well as on mechanisms to ensure fair and non-discriminatory allocation of relief resources.