A girl sits on a cot as she crosses a flooded street at Sohbatpur in Jaffarabad district of Balochistan province on October 4, 2022. (Photo: FIDA HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Deep-Rooted Gender Inequities Make Women More Vulnerable During Climate Disasters

Women continue to pay the price even in disaster situations.…

In recent years, the awful repercussions of climate change have become irrefutable and very alarming. Due to which Pakistan is facing a dire humanitarian crisis stemming from unprecedented rainfall and catastrophic floods that have impacted every part of the country. The statistics are staggering: over 1,100 dead, more than 33 million displaced and caused over $10 billion in damages. Officials estimate that this monsoon season has left one-third of the country underwater, one in seven Pakistani people have been affected by the momentous flooding.

Women in developing countries such as Pakistan are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate disasters due to deep-rooted gender inequities that define the moral and social fabric of their societies.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, while issuing an appeal for $160 million for flood relief, emphasized that Pakistan is experiencing "a monsoon on steroids" and further demanded the world's collective and prioritized attention. "It's all one big ocean, there's no dry land to pump the water out," Sherry Rehman, Federal Minister for Climate Change said, calling it a "crisis of unimaginable proportions." The scale of flooding is certainly unprecedented: the extremely consequential levels of humanitarian, infrastructural, and economic destruction are colossal, so much so that it is almost inconceivable to correctly quantify the losses at this point. Devastating flash floods have washed away roads, homes and crops - leaving a trail of deadly destruction across Pakistan.

In past 20 years Pakistan has faced multiple disasters, conflicts, earthquakes, pandemic and floods. During all these emergencies whether its 2005 earthquake, 2010 flood, conflict operations in Swat (2007-08) and Waziristan (2014), Covid pandemic (2000 - continue), and mega flood 2022, one thing that has been observed is government lacking in gender responsive policies and response in such situations despite women are the most effected.

When disasters like this hit, women, girls and other marginalised groups face the biggest challenges including access to humanitarian assistance. Women are more vulnerable to disasters than men due to the conditions that predispose them to severe disaster impacts. Key issues that contribute to women's vulnerability include lack of education and information, limited access to resources, economic conditions, and cultural issues. Moreover, women with disabilities and from religious minorities face discrimination during such natural disasters.

Women suffer from physical injuries more when they evict from their dwellings due to floods. Given the general limitations on women's mobility and education, particularly in Pakistan's rural areas, evacuation can be challenging as women are not fully equipped with life-saving skills such as swimming, navigation, or self-defense techniques.

Furthermore, owing to the conservative and patriarchal nature of most rural households in Pakistan, women are often not allowed to leave their homes without a male companion or permission from the tribal elders and tend to have minimal outside exposure as a result. They are also primary caregivers at home which can further compromise their ability to evacuate.

Nonetheless, for these women difficulties in finding adequate shelter, food, safe water, and fuel for cooking, as well as problems in maintaining personal hygiene and sanitation are genuine issues. All of these are problems related to women's gender identity and social roles. Many poor and destitute women remain unemployed during and after floods. Many daily wager women who work in informal sector have lost their employment and they are being not considered in the emergency relief strategies. Women also suffer from domestic violence and are subject to insecurity when taking refuge at community centers. These particular vulnerabilities and problems interrupt women's mitigation efforts and adaptation capacities in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR).

Women and children are 14 times more likely than men to receive fatal casualties when disaster strikes. Women in developing countries such as Pakistan are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate disasters due to deep-rooted gender inequities that define the moral and social fabric of their societies. According to the 2022 World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index report, Pakistan ranked as the second worst country in the world in terms of gender parity.

Against this backdrop, natural disasters, like floods, will further reinforce the existing gender inequalities by adding to the woes of millions of women and young girls who are constantly fighting for their rights to adequate education, health, and economic opportunities while operating within a primarily male-dominated society.

Preliminary information indicates major damage to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure during the flood. Access to safe drinking water is a significant concern. The communities are increasingly resorting to open defecation which is accumulating the risk of water and sanitation-related diseases. Cases of diarrhoea and water-borne diseases, respiratory infection, and skin diseases have already been reported.

There is a greater concern for women's hygiene and sanitation needs as these shelter homes are often unhygienic and do not have proper latrines or clean water. The women are unable to manage their periods in this homelessness. Some had even resorted to using leaves. Women's specific needs are neglected. The challenge is particularly acute for pregnant and lactating women. Pregnant women have nowhere to give birth safely because the floods have washed away homes and health facilities. Their lives and the lives of their babies are at risk as they can't access proper maternal health care.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that at least 650,000 pregnant women, of whom 73,000 are expected to deliver next month, in the flood-affected areas are in dire need of maternal health service. "They will need skilled birth attendants, newborn care, and support," the agency said. According to the UNFPA, over 1,000 health facilities were either partially or fully damaged in Sindh, whereas 198 were damaged in the affected districts in Balochistan. The damage to roads and bridges also compromised girls' and women's access to health facilities, it added.

Challenges for women continue well into the aftermath of a disaster, as many women and young girls are at a high risk of gender-based violence, sexual abuse, and harassment even in relief camps and shelter homes set up for flood victims. The UN agency warned that almost one million houses were damaged in the floods that spelled suffering for millions of women. With entire villages washed away, families broken up and many people sleeping under the sky, the usual social structures that keep people safe have fallen away, and this can be very dangerous for women and girls.

Nevertheless, the problems of women-headed families are more acute. Women who are widows, single moms or have no man at their homes, they are more vulnerable. They face severe issues in getting safe place, ration and any kind of humanitarian assistance. Women's issues are also about having preconditions for relief like ID card, nikkahnama and other such documents that women face problems in accessing.

Even after the immediate humanitarian phase during reconstruction or rehabilitation when affectees are being compensated with money or land women and girls are overlooked. In the disasters while doing the analysis of the damaged assets and loss calculations, the majority of the assets are mentioned under the head of the family name (male). Also while carrying out the assessment, male member who is the head of the family is being interviewed mostly and the needs of the opposite genders are being compromised.

There is dire need of legislative, policy and institutional reforms for ensuring prevention, protection and rehabilitation of women and girls during disasters and conflicts. Pakistan needs to take actions on district provincial and national level to secure the human rights of women and girls in disaster and conflict settings; prevent violence against women and girls; and ensure the meaningful participation of women. We need to have a gender responsive approach in DRR. It is very important to sensitize the policymakers on gender responsive policies in such situations and gender sensitive response during the disaster, humanitarian work and relief efforts. Government should make it crosscutting for all the policies and procedures.

As the Government of Pakistan and international agencies work to support the flood victims and develop greater climate resilience for the future, they must account for the role and needs of women. Women are essential to the development of better climate adaptation mechanisms and disaster risk resilience efforts.

Government-driven disaster management entities and CSOs should focus more heavily on gender-specific methods of disaster communication, climate education, and training opportunities-especially in underprivileged localities-so women are equipped with climate-related know-how. Involving women in key decision-making within communities, recognizing them as important stakeholders, and empowering them with climate-risk resilience skills and knowledge could elevate their role as agents of change.

Let women's voice be heard. They know what they need on priority as well as they should be heard with confidentiality in case there is any kind of violence including sexual. Immediate actions are needed to see violence/harassment against women in the flood affected areas. It is to prioritise gender-based violence prevention and response services, including medical and psychosocial support to the survivors of GBV.

The government should also include the female members of the family in carrying out the damage assessment. In the data collection process it must be ensured that the data should be segregated and representatives of all the segments. Women representation in the data collection should be mandatory. There must be strong database at local level. The role of local government is very important in disaster like situations as they are well versed with the local communities, area, household and local conditions. The local governments should be empowered so that during such situations emergency response can be effective.

It is a prerequisite to train health workers to treat the emergency health needs. Health issues related to all especially women and children, must be addressed urgently. The specific needs (sanitation and hygiene) of women should be catered while strategizing the emergency relief plan. Recently we have seen people speaking against dignity kits for women. We should behave like a civilized nation and not discourage the NGOs or individuals who are catering to women's specific needs during the relief activities. Safe spaces for women and girls should be established. Pathways to latrines and water points should be lighted and if possible guarded. There is dire need of dignity kits, newborn baby kits, and clean delivery kits for immediate delivery to Sindh, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.

Most of the distribution points are dominated by men. Ensure that rations are provided to women at their tents or safe spaces. The government should pay special attention to the more marginalized segments like woman with disabilities, minority women and women headed families. Such household should not be neglected.

Planning gaps exist in responding to any emergency by the government and women's access, privacy and security are mostly affected due to these gaps. The government emergency response department for example NDMA, Rescue 1122 and provincial departments need to be made more proactive instead of reactive. The civil society should need to back up these government emergency response departments.

All the organisations who are providing relief and response operations; they need to train their staff on core humanitarian standards for effective relief and response operations. There is also a need to localize these standards as per situation. Number of female officers who perform their duties at the front line especially in the health and police departments is very low and the government needs to pay serious attention to this. The law enforcement agencies have very clear capacity gaps in understanding the gender issues and sensitivities of the emergency relief. Pre-disaster training and capacity to deal with such a large scale natural calamities needs to be given priority and worked upon. The capacity of the institutions and local communities needs to be built on the prevention, protection and rehabilitation of women.

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