Rights during disasters: what about women with disabilities?

Fred Smith, March 2016

NOTE: This article is more than five years old, but may still be relevant. For more recent content, see our news and blogs page.

Today, I’d like to draw attention to a specific issue close to my heart: the rights of women during disasters.

Throughout the 60th Commission on the Status of Women my colleagues have been writing about Sightsavers’ work on women’s rights and gender equality.

My background is in research in disasters and development, and while studying it became clear that disability, disasters and development are all connected. But – as with so many other aspects of development work – it also became startlingly obvious that women’s rights are central to all three areas.

Why? Environmental hazards will always happen (and more frequently with ever-increasing climate change). But they only become disasters for certain people. This is because they expose existing inequalities. If you have a strong livelihood or access to resources you are generally less vulnerable to the impacts of a hazard than someone who does not.

This is relevant because of the number of barriers people with disabilities can face in everyday life, as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. People with disabilities are often among the poorest or most excluded people in a community. Due to existing gender inequalities, women with disabilities face heightened barriers still, and with that comes vulnerability to the impacts of disasters.

Evidence from women with disabilities in Bangladesh

Research into a Sightsavers and DRRA programme in Satkhira, Bangaldesh – a coastal district prone to flooding, waterlogging, and cyclones – identified a number of ways people with disabilities experience heightened vulnerability to disasters. These include:

  • poverty, discrimination and barriers accessing livelihoods
  • widespread inaccessibility and hazards changing the physical environment
  • inaccessible shelters, relief distribution and warning systems

But risk factors for women and girls with disabilities stand out. Speaking to women with disabilities identified three broad factors that increase risk.

Firstly, the context faced by women makes them more vulnerable to disasters than men. Attitudes around gender represent barriers accessing rights, education and employment. Expected daily responsibilities – such as collecting food and supplies during waterlogging – increase the chance of contracting diseases and being exposed to risk.

Secondly, women experience reduced social mobility in comparison to men. During disasters men are able to move freely while conservative beliefs mean women cannot move within the community in the same way. In our study, a male respondent explained that he can evacuate and stay at a neighbour’s house in emergencies, while it is not acceptable for women to do so. Men with disabilities can also be physically carried by anyone in an evacuation but this is not considered possible for women with disabilities.

Thirdly, the lack of separate spaces for women at shelters increases risk and influences decisions to evacuate. This is due to security concerns and sexual violence, which is common at shelters. Fears of sexual abuse in women’s homes were also raised as men from neighbouring areas take shelter.

However, the research also found that through advocating for their rights, people with disabilities have increased their representation on the bodies responsible for disaster preparedness at the local level. A number of women with disabilities now sit on the Union Disaster Management Committees and Cyclone Preparedness Programme Units, which are the organisations responsible for coordinating disaster preparedness, evacuations and response. So now, when decisions are made by these organisations about how to prepare and respond, the perspectives of women and girls with disabilities will be included.

What more should be done to reduce the violation of women’s rights?

There is growing momentum around addressing the rights of people with disabilities in global development frameworks, with significant references to people with disabilities in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement on climate change.

But the particular rights of girls and women with disabilities need to also be a priority in all stages of disaster management. The findings from Bangladesh clearly reflect the context faced by many other women all over the world.

The upcoming World Humanitarian Summit is a chance for development actors to demonstrate how they intend to realise this in practice. It’s time for more inclusive documents to translate into more inclusive action. Prioritising the rights of girls and women with disabilities is where this work should start. Meanwhile, Sightsavers will continue to speak up for women who can’t.

By Fred Smith, Sightsavers’ policy advisor on social inclusion

If you have a livelihood or access to resources you are less vulnerable to the impacts of a hazard

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