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Kerala should be a template for other states for a gendered approach to disaster

Many women, again in largely patriarchal societies like ours, are not used to taking any independent decisions. So they tend to not react in the face of disaster waiting for directions to come from an authority figure like a husband or an official. This leads to crucial time being wasted and possibly injuring or death when a natural disaster strikes.

columns Updated: Sep 02, 2018 00:04 IST
Rescuers help a pregnant woman to disembark a boat after she was evacuated from a flooded area in Aluva, Kerala, August 18, 2018(REUTERS)

We have seen so many reports about the resilient Malayalis, battling the floodwaters, standing as one. This is indeed extraordinary given the magnitude of the disaster. But we cannot adopt an omnibus approach to the situation as the tragedy affects different people in different ways. The main thing to study is the gendered aspect of the floods. Women are always more adversely affected by disasters like this than men.

Men are physiologically stronger than women and hence able to withstand such disasters better. Women, especially in societies like ours, have less mobility, hampered as they are by their lack of knowledge of outdoor activities like climbing or swimming. Pregnant women are at a particular disadvantage during disasters which is why we celebrated the dramatic rescue of a pregnant woman in Kerala and the safe birth of her baby.

During disasters, men are more likely to be away from their homes at work or elsewhere leaving women trapped at home. The task of saving children and the elderly then falls on the woman who is not equipped for the task in any way. Men are also able to access relief materials much better than women both on account of physical mobility and awareness of where to go and what to seek. In tragedies like the Kerala floods, resources become scarce and women are at a disadvantage in getting what is on offer. The poor are more adversely affected by disasters and within this cohort, women are the worst affected. This is not confined to India alone. During Hurricane Katrina or the 1995 Kobe earthquake, more women died as they were living in flimsy homes and were unaware of the approaching disaster.

During and after disasters, violence against women tends to increase as more women are left with no family support or security and there is often a break down of the law and order apparatus. We have seen how women who have had to flee to shelters or refugee camps after conflicts and disasters are vulnerable to sexual and other forms of violence. When it comes to rebuilding their lives, women have fewer skills and access to relief and resources that the state or civil society organisations hand out.

Many women, again in largely patriarchal societies like ours, are not used to taking any independent decisions. So they tend to not react in the face of disaster waiting for directions to come from an authority figure like a husband or an official. This leads to crucial time being wasted and, possibly injury or death, when a natural disaster strikes.

In Kerala, many households are headed by women with the men working out of the state. The floods have destroyed so much property and resources, making it more difficult for many men working abroad or outside of the state to stay on while reconstruction begins. In my own little town, many men working abroad did not come back during the floods for fear of losing their jobs. So the task of rebuilding homes and families will devolve a lot on women in many instances. They have been through the trauma of the fearsome floods and now they have to pick up the pieces.

The state government has done a sterling job but it simply does not have the resources to provide counselling and psychological help to the affected women, men or children. Yet, the horror of seeing homes washed away, corpses floating past and being trapped without food and water creates mental trauma and stress which will not vanish with the receding waters.

Kerala, with its social advantages, could be a template for other states to look at a gendered approach to disaster. Women have special economic, health and security requirements after going through such trauma. They are the primary caregivers for their children and the elderly and so their well being should be of paramount concern to both society and the state. So far, we have had a one size fits all approach when it comes to disasters. We should differentiate between the impact on women and men. Women should also be taught more survival skills given that climatic catastrophes seem to be upon us with greater frequency these days. It will certainly give women a fighting chance the next time around.

lalita.panicker@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Sep 01, 2018 16:19 IST