Revisiting Traditional Gender Identities in Disaster Response

By: Kanchan Gandhi
It is now widely acknowledged that when disasters occur, not all members of the ‘affected community’ are affected the same way. The earlier literature on gender and disasters over-emphasized women’s vulnerabilities in the aftermath of a disaster due to their care-giving roles. It did not consider the differential vulnerabilities of diverse groups of women based on their class, caste, race, age, occupation or sexual orientations. Similarly, men’s differential vulnerabilities were seldom discussed in the early literature on this subject. After disasters like the 2004 Tsunami and 2005 Hurricane Katrina however, the importance of the intersectionality of gender with race, occupation and class and other axes of social identity became more visible and discussed in the literature. This paper provides an overview of the literature on gender and disasters and calls for the need to nuance identity categories based on their intersectionality and multiplicity to achieve more sensitive and effective disaster responses.

From the late 1990s several scholars have highlighted how women are more vulnerable to the impacts of different disasters due to their reproductive and care-giving roles. This monolithic representation of women as ‘victims’ has later been challenged by different scholars (cf.Hydman and deAlwis, 2003; Ruwanpura, 2008; Gandhi, 2010; Enarson, 2012). Feminists from the Majority World have emphasised the need to complicate the category ‘women’ by analysing it in conjunction with other axes of social identity such as race, class, caste, and ethnicity (cf. hooks, 1986; Mohanty, 1986; Nagar, 2000). Gender and disaster researchers have similarly called for the need to complicate existing identity categories to analyse the differential impacts of disasters and formulate response strategies. Lumping ‘women’ and ‘men’ as homogenous categories in both disaster and development contexts lead to the overlooking of the differential needs of different groups of women and men (Cupples 2007; Rashid and Michaud, 2000; Gandhi 2010; Enarson, 2012).

Overton (2014) for example argues that looking at women solely through their maternal, reproductive, and care-giving roles leads to the denial of their sexualities. This approach tends to focus on adult mothers and care-givers often ignoring younger and old women from the disaster response process. Similarly, Enarson (2012) based on official statistics argues that in the United States of America, it is the black and elderly women who are more vulnerable to the impacts of disaster as compared to their white, younger counterparts. In her case-study of the 2004 Tsunami in Tamil Nadu, Gandhi (2010) argues that it is the de-facto women heads of households, elderly widows with adult sons, and men who became infirm due to the impacts of the Tsunami who got left out in the post-disaster response programmes implemented by the rehabilitation agencies.


Early literature on gender and disasters

Earlier studies on gender and disaster have tended to focus more on the causes of women’s greater vulnerability during disasters due to their social class; care giving roles and relative lack of power and status and patriarchy (Fothergill, 1998; Ariyabandu and Wickramasinghe, 2005). In the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh for example, more women and children perished in their homes while waiting for the men to return and make evacuation decisions (WHO, 2002).

Cultural norms such as the practice of veiling and private confinement also serve to limit the mobility of women during disaster situations (Cannon 2002, Khondker, 1996; Rashid and Michaud 2000). Such portrayal of women as ‘victims’ in the literature has been challenged in some of the subsequent studies which have focused on women’s agency and resilience.

In a literature review on gender and disasters, Fothergill (1998) points out that studies on disaster preparedness point to the fact that while women are generally absent in the formal emergency preparedness activities, they play an active role in the informal preparation for a disaster by preparing their family and community for such a situation. The studies also point towards the absence of women in decision-making positions, leadership roles and higher levels of emergency management.

Many studies on the response phase point out that it is stressful for women to move out of their homes and live in the cramped conditions of the temporary shelters (Skelton, 1999, Fordham, 1999, Rashid and Michaud 2000). Women suffer more, as they must spend more time in the camps to look after the elderly and the children as compared to men who can move around in the open. In some of the Majority World countries the socio-cultural norms make it even more difficult for women to move out of the camp alone for the fear of sexual assault (Khondker, 1996).

Several studies have highlighted the increased marital discords, desertion, and divorces in the post-disaster period (Hoffman, 1999; Fordham, 1998; Skelton, 1999). Fordham (1998) for example described how white middle-class women found new personal strength after the floods in Scotland, which enabled them to take decisions such as getting out of oppressive marital relationships.

It is widely documented that disaster response and management approaches have traditionally been top-down, male-dominated and gender imbalanced (Fordham, 1998; Enarson, 1998; Robertson, 1998; Finlay, 1998; Fothergill, 1996; Khondker, 1996, Reyes, 2002). Khondker (1996) has highlighted the gender discrepancies of relief supplies in the response period. In his study of floods in Bangladesh he observes that since outdoor activities were prohibited for women it limited their access to economic activities. Reyes (2002) highlighted that during the El Nino period in Peru, many men migrated out in search of employment and females and were left behind as heads of households. However, the major rural community organisations typically did not recognise women heads of households. Women also suffer more when the relief distribution is organized and carried out by men. For example, in the post-Tsunami Aceh region, the Indonesian military was responsible for the distribution of relief. The army had “for years been torturing, raping, and slaughtering the Acenese” (Keys, Smith and Cottle, 2006).

Research has also illuminated that women exhibit great resourcefulness and resilience in taking up nontraditional roles in post-disaster contexts and these qualities have rarely been utilised in disaster mitigation processes (Ali, 1984; Finlay, 1998). For example, after hurricane Mitch women participated in digging wells, constructing temporary shelters, latrines, and temporary water collection systems (Yonder and Gopalan, 2005). In the post hurricane Andrews period women organized themselves into a coalition called ‘women will rebuild’ to shoulder responsibility and organise themselves for rehabilitation (Enarson and Morrow, 1998).



Intersectionality of identities and need to revisit categories

Hyndman and de Alwis (2003) have argued that the gender box is simply inadequate to understand the complex experiences of women, who were oppressed based on both their gender and ethnicity in the context of Sri Lanka. It was the Tamil women who were more disadvantaged and vulnerable due to the civil war and conflict in the country since they were subjected to more scrutiny and sexual abuse by the Sinhalese army. They contend that gender must be studied in conjunction with women’s place in nationalist discourses. This would mean a deeper look at their ethnic, class, caste, and race positions in a society.

Ruwanpura (2008) argues that the Tsunami brought to the forefront pre-existing social inequalities embedded in the structures of gender, class, caste, and ethnicity; she also explains how exposure to the war and female family headship had left Tamil women ambiguously empowered and entrepreneurial in contrast to the Burgher women who were dependent on external aid.

Enarson (2012:2) contends that the “Differences within groups of women are often larger than those between women and men. As employers, supervisors, clients, customers, and teachers, large numbers of women in the United States are privileged over men due to intersecting patterns of gender, race, and class”. Enarson (2012:3) compares women’s vulnerability not only to men during and after a disaster but also classifies more vulnerable groups within the category ‘women’. Based on official statistics she demonstrates that senior women and women of colour are more vulnerable in the aftermath of a disaster than white, privileged women in the context of the USA.

Gandhi (2010:261-262) argues that in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami in coastal Tamil Nadu, the rehabilitation agencies worked with traditional identity categories such as ‘widows’ which left out the de-facto women heads of households from the fold of the welfare programmes.

She highlights how a NGO called SOS ran a widow support programme where scholarships were offered to the children of ‘widows’ in the affected village. Several women had sick, depressed, and injured spouses after the 2004 Tsunami and were acting as de-facto heads of households and breadwinners for their families. Their families were excluded from such support programmes. The literature highlights how widows have traditionally received more attention than other categories of single women such as the never-married, divorced, separated, and abandoned women. Such biases in designing recovery programmes lead to the exclusion of some of the marginalised groups in the aftermath of a disaster.

Overton (2014) discusses how ‘young women’ have not received much attention in the existing literature on gender and disasters. She explains how a queer community called ‘the Kings’ became a more inclusive space that enabled younger women to explore their gendered-sexualities and challenge heteronormativity and gender bias in society in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Overton (2014) calls for the need to incorporate the ‘performative’ aspect of gender while looking at gendered identity categories in the aftermath of a disaster.

Gendered categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’ need to be segregated by their differential vulnerabilities before, during and after the disaster. Gandhi (2010) for example highlights the plight of men who became infirm in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami and were not able to perform their pre-disaster breadwinner roles. Gender-based policies must account for the performative aspects of gender. For example, there were scarcely any programmes for alternate livelihood development for men who were injured and unable to pursue fishing in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami. The bulk of the focus was on reviving the dominant trait – i.e. fishing by distributing excess of boats and fishing nets by the rehabilitation agencies.

The latest wave of literature on gender and disasters calls for considering these differences in the experiences of different groups of men and women (Shreve, Davis, and Fordham, 2017). It also stresses on the need to look at vulnerabilities of children, men, and elderly people. It argues that vulnerabilities and resilience co-exist and should not be viewed in opposition to each other. Nuancing of existing social identity categories such as ‘men’, ‘women’, ‘children’, ‘elderly’, ‘single-women’ and treating social identities as multiple and fluid will lead to more effective disaster response processes.



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The Author is a visiting faculty member at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi and Xavier University, Bhubaneswar. 

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