India is one of the most vulnerable countries that are recurrently prone to natural disasters, cyclone being one of the most prominent. Perhaps more stark than the calamities is the marginalisation of women during and post disasters; being increasingly exposed to crime, unsafe delivery and poor nutrition. Moreover, breakage of community linkages and the matrix of dependency show that disaster preparedness lacks gender sensitisation at its core. Even today women are looked upon as victims and the perception of their ‘helplessness’ undermines the natural potential to manage efficient linkages before, during and after a disaster. The aspect came to further light from a study conducted by the G’nY team in the Raichak area, about 300 km from the cyclone core of Balasore in Odisha and approximately 60 km south of Kolkata, and Mousani in Sunderban, 90 odd km south of Kolkata.
West Bengal is ranked third in the number of cyclones in India with a cyclone probability of 0.6 per year, i.e. at least one cyclone every second year (Indian Meteorological Department records for 1891 to 2006). Thus, preparedness is an important aspect in the region. The vulnerable sections were found to be alert to weather changes and could at times preempt storm-like circulations with accuracy.
The area when visited was found to be inhabited mainly by young women in the age group of 15 to 44. Their daily chores included, apart from household activities, gleaning shrimp seed from the distributaries of Ganga that flowed before their houses and tending to subsistence paddy fields. The women were mostly educated up to fourth or fifth class while the men were marginally better off with a score of matriculates. Engaged in low skilled labour, the women were found to be working in adverse conditions that were exploitative in terms of sale of fish seed and other subsistence produce. The women were found to have very little owned assets, which were in most cases in the name of the husband or the son. Women of Mousani showed a greater number of owned assets as compared to the women of the fishing hamlet in Raichak.
The housing in the region mainly comprises of ‘kuccha’ habitations, following a linear pattern on the levee in the case of Raichak, and scattered in the island of Mousani. The ceilings are low, ranging from 4 to 6 feet, usually single roomed, used mainly by women for sleeping and storing, with kitchen, washing and leisure spaces located outside. Significantly, only one house had a toilet in Mousani, while the habitation at Raichak had no bathing spaces, let alone toilets.
Response to disasters
When the female respondents were posed questions related to disaster preparedness, they largely dismissed its need. Vulnerability, they opined, is a part of life. They were reluctant to consider relocation, as they felt it would affect their livelihood. Ranked at the top was their need for better housing. They were aware of warning systems and tune in to radio or TV warnings when the skies turn grey. Few of the respondents mentioned that a loud speaker system would be of better use, especially if they have to evacuate and go to a camp or shelter. They seemed aware of cyclone shelters in their location but do not feel comfortable about accessing it as it does not hold an inviolate space for women. As regards disaster preparedness, they felt that they know each other well in the village and they do not need to be aligned just so that they can be prepared.
The respondents opined that their prime-most need in a post disaster situation is food and drinking water. They feel that camps should have specific areas designated for women and children and are open to women assistance for dealing with issues of reproductive health. They cite cases where the women find it difficult to cope with the flood of people, inclement conditions and zero sensitivity in the shelters. The female respondents feel that the disaster evacuation and assistance lack the comfort and assurance that women rescue and relief workers could contribute. The respondents were least conclusive about better sanitation facilities. As regards molestation and crime in shelters, one respondent said that she consciously chose to leave her young daughter and minor son in the ravaged house despite the risk and went herself to collect food and water, as she did not want to expose her daughter to the risks of sexual abuse.
The small fisher folk community of Raichak, as well as the paddy growers of the sinking island of Mousani, has a cohesive society bound together by common dangers of shared livelihoods. These strong indigenous associations provide an existing organisational base to be the first responders of disasters and emergencies. Often these associations function to cross-cut kin groups, serving to balance dominating political and economic forces. If women’s groups are aligned at the grassroot level along existing lines it would be the decisive way to prepare and mitigate the negative impacts of a disaster. Women are strong advocates for preparedness measures at the community level because they understand what disaster means in the day-to-day realities of life.
A brief study of existing policies of states (disaster management being a state issue) that have vulnerable coastal communities living in similar conditions points towards a lack of interventions at the grassroot level. The West Bengal disaster management policy writes in its objectives that it needs to ‘address gender issues in disaster management’ but does not move beyond to outline how it can be done. The Odisha State Disaster Mangement Policy is vibrant with sections on mitigation of gender discrimination; evacuation of women and children; identification of women-headed household and outlines how women groups can build preparedness. However, very little is being done on the ground as can be seen from the Phailin records. The National Policy on Disaster Management (NPDM) talks of building a State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) wherein each state may aim at equipping and training one battalion equivalent force which is to include women members. But till date women are not part of such a battalion in West Bengal or Odisha, or even Uttarakhand. Let alone the states, the National Disaster Response Force too does not deploy any women in their battalions, citing that rescue and relief operations are ‘not suitable’ for women.
In the recent years India has been battered by various cyclones. It is strange that data (Table 1) suggests that not one of the battalions had a significant number of women in them. Disaster relief is a sensitive process and needs equally important inputs from women who can work efficiently during and in the aftermath of a disaster. It should be mandated that at least 30 per cent of the force comprise of women if sensitisation needs to be incorporated in disaster relief. The reproductive health and issues of abuse are better shared with a woman relief worker as compared to men. The fishing communities in coastal regions have a skewed population ratio, exposing the home-stationed ‘in situ’ women to cyclones or tidal waves. Thus, there is an urgent need to incorporate women in relief work so that vulnerabilities are addressed and redressed with sensitivity.
Women centric policies in India have been based on the premise of women frailties. The mind-set works into the psyche of women too when domains are pre-fixed for them. Gender in preparedness at the community level must begin with the grassroot grouping of women. Pointers and brochures at the policy level indicate the need for community led disaster task force and how it may be formed. But there were no such groups in Raichak, or for that matter in the Sunderban island of Mousani. There are self help groups though, that align themselves on vocational or income earning opportunities. These may be accessed by making disaster preparedness part of an income earning mechanism, where low cost building materials in the post cyclone situation may be one of the marketable skills offered. The women climate-warrior groups can then be offered micro-credit and enterprise status to take disaster preparedness to the next level by changing the ‘god’s wish’ defeatist tag. Thus preparedness and mitigation amalgamated with income earning mechanism can offer a viable solution.
During the relief period there is an urgent need to offer responsibilities to women—especially to women community leaders who can work as primary distributors of emergency rations. This would help in upholding the dignity of women and stop them from being compromised while tackling the double burden of protecting herself as well as fending for her children. Women should also be made in charge of adequate sanitation facilities, as safe and clean toilets are imperative in an evacuation scenario. The need for organised gendered approach that takes women’s physical, psychological, social and economic vulnerabilities into account at every stage of a disaster—from preparedness to rehabilitation urgently needs to be put in place not on paper but in reality.