Women and girls: bearing the brunt of humanitarian disasters

Estelle Bloom | Jun 03, 2016
Woman collecting water, Siiqqee, Ethiopia
When humanitarian disasters such as droughts, floods and war strike, the whole population suffers. But women and girls are particularly disadvantaged, in ways that are not always immediately apparent. Parts of Africa, for example, are currently facing the worst drought in decades, and women and girls seem to be bearing the brunt.

A second year without rain in southern Africa threatens to bring devastation to millions in the region, with more than 31 million people in need of food now, and numbers expected to rise. In Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, where six of our partners work, the situation is bleak. Rainfall is not expected any time soon, causing Zimbabwe to declare a state of disaster. Acute malnutrition is threatening to take hold due to failing crops, dying cattle and dwindling water supplies. 

The pressure on women

As the traditional providers of food and water to the family, the pressure of droughts and other disasters on women and girls in developing countries is immense. In Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, women and girls are now having to walk huge distances to find water. Some can spend up to 10 hours a day walking back and forth, carrying heavy water containers in the scorching sun. 

This situation is all the more perilous for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. There have been reports of some women giving birth on the journey to fetch water  – putting them at huge risk– while other women report struggling to breastfeed their children due to malnourishment. 

It is now recognised that humanitarian crises impact women and girls disproportionally. Research shows that women are 14 times more likely than men to die in a crisis, and that pregnancy and childbirth kill 507 women every day in settings of conflict or disaster. Access to basic health and reproductive services at these times saves lives. But a recent United Nations Population Fund report found that such services are scarcest at the times they are needed most. 

The lifelong effects of disasters on women

For many women and girls, the impact of humanitarian disasters is not just immediate, but lifelong. In Ethiopia, for instance, Unicef reports that more than 2 million children are on the verge of dropping out of school because of the drought. In emergency situations, it is girls’ education that often suffers most, as they are kept out of school to help at home. Indeed, girls have been shown to be 2.5 times more likely to miss school during disasters than boys. This threatens to set girls’ progress back even further, affecting whole future generations. 

In addition, women and girls face other grave dangers during emergency situations, when existing inequalities are exacerbated. Studies have shown that women and girls in the midst of humanitarian disasters are more vulnerable to sexual violence, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and child marriage. In the current drought situation in India, for example, reports indicate increased abuses against women such as forced prostitution and greater dowry deaths (when women are murdered or driven to suicide due to pressure and harassment from their husband or in-laws for increased dowries) if women cannot conceive because of malnourishment.

Netty, from our partner Musasa in Zimbabwe, which runs a shelter for women survivors of violence says:

"We have a serious drought and we are starting to see an influx of women, girls and children in our shelters and the only way we can help is tolook at their urgent needs like food and clothes. The situation in Zimbabwe is at a tipping point and we are seeing a huge increase in cases of gender-based violence."

It is time to act for women in disasters


Women are simply more vulnerable and less able to protect themselves in emergency situations, due to their unequal status in society, lack of access to resources and exclusion from decision making. Such issues were highlighted at the recent World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, in the hope of bringing improvements to the current situation. As UN Population Fund Executive Director Dr Babatunde Osotimehin says: 

“The health and rights of women should not be treated like an afterthought in humanitarian response”. 

Women's needs must be prioritised

The work of our partners around the world, and currently in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, to end violence against women, give women greater control over their finances and make sure women have a voice is creating change. But they need more funding, especially in times of disaster. As violence and inequality increases due to the current drought, our partners will find it more difficult to cope. Women’s needs should be taken into account and funding made available to the women’s rights organisations supporting them. 

To make sure our partners’ work can continue and grow during this drought and through other humanitarian situations, please make a regular gift today. 

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