Improving Women’s Odds in Disasters

December 12, 2013


Soil erosion caused by flooding and cyclones puts coastal communities in Bangladesh at risk.

Mahfuzul Hasan Bhuiyan/World Bank

  • Women are much more likely than men to be killed in natural disasters. New research aims at improving their odds of survival.
  • A survey for the World Bank’s fund for the poorest countries, the International Development Association, inventories cyclone shelters and provides fresh data on emergency preparedness in vulnerable regions of Bangladesh.
  • Including gender in disaster planning can help avoid costly mistakes and save lives.

Fatema Begum heard the warning to evacuate as Cyclone Sidr bore down on Bangladesh’s southwestern coast in 2007. But she didn’t leave until her home began to fill with water. The nearest shelter was only five meters away, but in the darkness and surging water, that short distance felt like five kilometers. She struggled with two young children in tow, eventually arriving soaked and lucky to be alive.

Begum recently described her ordeal to researchers trying to find out how to improve women’s odds in one of the most disaster-prone countries on earth – and where women have died in far greater numbers than men.

Her story and several others are captured in a new documentary and survey for the World Bank and its fund for the poorest countries, the International Development Association (IDA). The survey inventories cyclone shelters and provides fresh data on the state of emergency preparedness in some of the most vulnerable regions of Bangladesh.

One of its chief aims is to gather evidence on how gender factors into disaster risk and response. 

“Bangladesh has made a huge investment in disaster risk management, and it’s saving lives,” says Sabah Moyeen, the World Bank social development specialist leading the effort. “But weaving gender into all aspects of disaster planning and recovery could save more lives.”

In 1970, before early warning systems and storm tracking by satellite, the huge Bhola Cyclone claimed an estimated 300,000 victims in Bangladesh. One of the most striking things about the storm was that women victims outnumbered men 14 to 1.

Cyclone Sidr some 37 years later was as powerful, but casualties fell to about 3,500. The ratio of female to male deaths dropped to 5 to 1.

Between the two storms, Bangladesh had become a model in disaster preparedness. Some 3,500 cyclone shelters were built with the help of partners, including IDA, and more are on the way through the Cyclone Emergency Restoration Project, supported by IDA, and other initiatives. The government joined forces with the Red Crescent Society to develop the cyclone preparedness program and an early warning system.

One of the most effective strategies was involving women, say disaster risk experts. Most women were home-based, responsible for children and elders, and culturally and socially isolated. They died in cyclones because they did not hear warnings, or because they had to fend for others as well as themselves. Many would not evacuate without their husband or another male to accompany them.

Bangladesh tapped women as preparedness champions and made separate spaces in shelters for women and children. Women more readily left their homes after hearing other women calling for people to evacuate. But barriers remain. In recent surveys, women perceived shelters as insecure places where they would have to sacrifice their privacy, and husbands saw them as places they did not want to bring their wives.

Begum said her local shelter lacked drinking water and toilets – two things she considered essential. There was no light to guide her on her short journey. Once at the shelter, she had to stand with her children in a crowded room with men.

" There’s a huge opportunity for mainstreaming gender in disaster risk management in the poorest countries. It just makes sense. It’s good development. The beneficiaries are both men and women. "

Zuzana Stanton-Geddes

Disaster Risk Analyst for the World Bank's East Asia and Pacific Region

Dulal Forazee, from the same sub-district of Sharankhola, donated land so a shelter with separate spaces for women and children could be built. He had lost two young daughters, 3 and 5, in Sidr, when the storm surge overtook his wife and children on their way to a distant shelter.

The design of evacuation centers is just one element in disaster risk management, say experts. In fact, ignoring gender is likely to result in mistakes that hamper prevention, reconstruction, recovery, and long-term development. A recent study, for instance, linked typhoons to dramatic increases in mortality rates for infant girls in the Philippines for up to 24 months after a storm – a problem that could be addressed through subsidies for low-income families and other measures.

“Disasters tend to reveal development failures and societal issues, so inequities can be compounded and become worse in a disastrous situation,” says Margaret Arnold, a senior social development specialist at the World Bank.

Women’s roles in the household and community make them more likely to know who is vulnerable and who needs help. “If relief is distributed through women, it’s more effective,” says Arnold.

The aftermath of a disaster can be an opportunity to empower women, such as by making joint titles to housing deeds standard practice, she adds. Women’s names were added to land titles or housing deeds in Aceh, India, and Argentina as part of the post-disaster reconstruction process.

Women’s representation can help ensure issues are seen from multiple angles, says Patricia Fernandes, a World Bank social development specialist. A community driven development project in the Philippines requires 50-50 representation on committees that also make decisions about disaster planning and allocation of funds for community investments. A similar community-based initiative is planned for Vietnam.

“It’s all about giving women the opportunity to contribute to decisions being made,” says Zuzana Stanton-Geddes, a disaster risk analyst for the Bank’s East Asia and Pacific region.

“There’s a huge opportunity for mainstreaming gender in disaster risk management in the poorest countries,” she adds. “It just makes sense. It’s good development. The beneficiaries are both men and women.”