Disaster relief must better account for women’s needs

Disaster relief must better account for women’s needs

From storms and floods to earthquakes and wildfires, 2023 has seen a record number of natural disasters across the world. September alone witnessed powerful storms in Hong Kong, Brazil, Libya and in several European countries, triggering devastating floods. Morocco was hit with the deadliest earthquake in the Kingdom’s modern history. As humanitarian organisations and local authorities deal with recovery operations, calls are growing for a gender-sensitive and inclusive approach to tackling natural disasters.

“Women and girls are actually 14 times more likely to die [in natural disasters], and they face unique vulnerabilities,” explains Yasmina Benslimane, a feminist activist and founder of the movement Politics4Her. In response to the devastating earthquake that hit Morocco on September 8, Benslimane and Politics4Her have published a manifesto calling for gender-sensitive disaster relief. “A gender-sensitive approach to disaster management will recognise these vulnerabilities and ensure that the relief efforts are tailored to meet the specific needs of women, girls, children and all marginalised groups.”

Reproductive care is overlooked in disaster relief 

“The biggest challenge girls and women face during disasters is access to maternal and reproductive health services, menstrual care, and menstrual hygiene products,” says Farah Kanbi, human rights activist and co-director of Politics4Her.

Storm Daniel, the latest disaster to date, led to extreme rain and floods in Libya, with authorities declaring a state of extreme emergency. According to the United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA), up to 230,000 of people in need of humanitarian assistance are women and girls of reproductive age. The UNFPA estimates that out of this number, 24,000 women are pregnant and in need of essential reproductive health services – with 2,625 of them expected to give birth in the next month.

In Morocco, period poverty – which already affects 70 percent of women – has been exacerbated in the aftermath of the earthquake. “It is important to highlight that menstruation doesn’t stop during disasters,” Kanbi says. To address this often-overlooked aspect of disaster relief, Politics4Her has been actively seeking funding and partnerships with reusable period product brands that offer sustainable solutions. One of these is For The Menstruator, a youth-led global organisation advocating for menstrual equity, who are  providing disposable menstrual products to those affected on the ground. These products are distributed through local grassroots organisations such as Project Soar, a non profit dedicated to girls’ empowerment and to eliminating the stigma surrounding menstruation.

Women are at higher risk of violence in disaster events

Disasters like earthquakes also put women at greater risk of violence. “Limited access to safe sanitation facilities, the lack of privacy and safety in the overcrowded shelters increase the risk of gender-based violence,” Benslimane says. 

When an earthquake hit Turkey in February, it affected more than 5 million adolescent girls and women of reproductive age. Social worker and volunteer Asli Saban explained how dangerous it is for girls and women in settlements. “There is a lot of violence and abuse,” she said. “A few survivors called and told me that girls are getting harassed while going to the toilets. We need private spaces and protection in the settlements for women and children.”

In Morocco, entire villages were wiped out by the earthquake, and aid efforts struggle to reach survivors. “As of right now, some villages in the Atlas mountains don’t even have shelters yet,” Benslimane says. “People are sleeping on the floor, in the open sky because they lost everything.” 

“With the displacement of families and the lack of resources, women and children are also vulnerable to several forms of exploitation like trafficking, forced labor, and forced child marriage,” Kanbi adds. 

UNICEF reported that about 100,000 children have been affected by the earthquake, putting them at risk of sexual violence and exploitation. Videos and images have been circulating on social media suggesting that men should marry or adopt underage girls who have been orphaned by the earthquake, with Al Jazeera reporting that at least one man has been arrested for promoting the marriage of underage girls. “There is paedo-criminality all over social media,” says Benslimane, who is urging organisations and news outlets to shed light on this ongoing violence and trafficking. “Men are posting messages with girls’ faces uncovered. There are a lot of unethical behaviours happening online, it’s completely unacceptable.” 

Disaster relief must take gender into account

A gender-sensitive approach to disaster management is crucial, Kanbi explains. “Organisations should include gender considerations in all phases of disaster management, from risk assessment and preparedness to response and recovery. It fosters inclusivity not only with regard to gender, but also other intersecting factors like age, disability, and ethnicity. It guarantees that the needs of all members within the community are taken into consideration.”

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has highlighted the need for humanitarian organisations to ensure their emergency response teams include an equal number of men and women. Their staff and volunteers should also be properly trained on gender issues and inclusivity, and be aware of the country’s cultural norms – in some places, women might not wish to discuss menstrual problems or be examined by male physicians. After a tsunami hit parts of India in 2004, the IFRC found that both elderly women and men were excluded from some assistance due to mistaken assumptions that they required little food for their survival. 

In their manifesto, Politics4Her is urging humanitarian organisations and governments to ensure girls and women have access to reproductive healthcare and comprehensive sexual education, and to provide them with safe housing and shelter. It also emphasises the importance of psychological support.

“Mental health and psychosocial support is crucial to help cope with the horrors caused by disasters,” Saban said. “It’s a big trauma. Not only for the survivors, who lost relatives and their homes, or who became disabled, but also for the rescue teams. For physicians, who have been treating survivors. For the volunteers who have been providing humanitarian aid. I also experienced depression. It’s very difficult. The mental health effects of the disaster are deep.”

To ensure that girls’ and women’s needs are cared for at all stages of disaster management, it’s important to promote their participation and leadership in decision-making. “I see a lot of women involved in disaster relief, it’s so nice,” Benslimane says. “They’re the ones that thought about menstrual pads. That’s why we need them. They can advocate for policies and guidelines that prioritise those gender-sensitive, transformative approaches. These are essential for promoting equality, preventing gender based violence and ensuring that the most marginalised communities receive adequate support during and after disaster relief.”

Follow Politics4Her on instagram to learn how to provide support to survivors in Morocco

Alia Chebbab



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