Women and Natural Disasters: Protecting the World's Most Vulnerable Populations

Over ten years ago, on December 26, 2004, an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia triggered one of the deadliest tsunamis ever recorded, an event that ushered the destruction of over 200,000 lives -- and even more livelihoods -- throughout Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the east coast of Africa.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, studies were conducted and stories were collected in an attempt to effectively measure the damage that was inflicted, aid those in need, and repair what had been destroyed. During this time, Oxfam International reported that up to four times as many women than men died in the tsunami.

Why was this the case? According to local survivors in Tamil Nadu, the worst affected state in India, there were several reasons. When the tsunami hit, many of the men were out fishing at sea, while the women were waiting on the shore to collect the men's catch. Many of the women and girls, despite the fact that they lived in a coastal community, did not know how to swim. Additionally, the gendered dress code of a saree and long hair hampered fast movement and caused many women to drown or get stuck in branches and trees.

Furthermore, for the women who were rescued, some of them were asked for sexual favors by their male rescuers; consequently, due to a sense of obligation, the women succumbed to their demands.

These cases are just examples of the devastation that occurred throughout the region. And after ten years, the effects of the tsunami have certainly made an irrevocable imprint on our collective psyche, its legacy a testament to our failure as a global community not only to provide an early warning to those affected, but also to eliminate the cultural, economic, and political chains that ultimately shackled so many of the tsunami's victims to their calamitous fate.

As we look back upon this year's World Population Day, we should ask ourselves: have we finally learned from our past?

Apparently not. We already know that this past year, worldwide displacement reached an all-time high of 60 million people, and that "globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum." However, this number is only going to increase, and as people continue to flee their homes due to war and persecution, in a few decades even more will begin to seek asylum and refuge due to climate change and natural disasters.

This year, the theme for World Population Day was "Vulnerable Populations in Emergencies," and it is absolutely crucial for us to reflect on what exactly this means, and why -- especially now, more than ever -- it is necessary for us to adequately protect the rights and needs of these most vulnerable populations in times of (un)natural disaster and upheaval.

According to the United Nations Development Program, "60 percent of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people are women who are dependent on their natural environment to earn a living and feed their families." Ironically, because these women are so dependent on their natural environment, they are also viewed as environmental stewards, capable of contributing effective and adaptive livelihood strategies, a skill that is especially critical as we face the global crisis of a changing environmental reality.

And yet, despite this fact, women around the world still remain more vulnerable than men to climate change and natural disasters due to cultural, economic, and political constraints that prevent them from receiving access to the resources they need in order to survive and maintain their livelihoods. These chains can be seen around the world, from Bangladesh, where women often fall into destitution after a disaster because there are no legal provisions protecting their land rights in the event of their husbands' or sons' deaths, to Sri Lanka, where women in the past have been unable to receive access to emergency relief because they were not registered as the head of the household in official population statistics.

So, as we contemplate World Population Day, we should be asking ourselves what we have learned, so that we can truly liberate the world's most vulnerable populations from the cultural, economic, and political chains that bind them. As the threat of climate change ominously looms over us, and as we careen more rapidly than ever towards a future with unprecedented levels of worldwide displacement, we must approach these challenges through a gender-sensitive lens, so that vulnerable and marginalized communities throughout the world can make more gains in achieving economic growth, opportunity, and improved livelihoods.