LAHORE: Disasters do not discriminate, but people do. Disasters reinforce, perpetuate and increase gender inequality, making bad situations worse for women.
Disasters are not experienced in a vacuum. What happens to an adolescent girl in such times is directly related to attitudes towards girls and women in the wider community and in the political, economic, social and cultural context. It is also affected by the family she comes from, as well as her status, age, ability, material wellbeing and a range of other factors linked to the country she lives in and the social groups to which she belongs to. Disasters and emergencies have a negative effect on everyone involved. People die, are injured, and lose their families and their livelihoods. But for girls, particularly adolescents, disasters expose them to much greater risks – especially in those societies where girls are already less privileged – than men and boys.
The reason can be summed up in one simple word: power. It is the relative powerlessness of women and children in many societies that makes them more vulnerable during disasters. In general, women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster. In 2010, a study conducted in Pakistan found that 85 per cent of those displaced by floods were women and children. Similarly, during the Asian tsunami in 2004, approximately 45,000 more women than men died.
For many adolescent girls a major disaster simply adds to the individual risks they have to face in everyday life. This is especially true if they come from poor families, though violence and discrimination can affect girls regardless of their background. Evidence from primary research demonstrates that the humanitarian and development communities are failing to address the needs of adolescent girls.
They are failing to ensure they have the knowledge, skills and resources to be able to survive the impact of a potential flood, drought, or earthquake. They are failing to provide for their needs when they are exposed to greater risks in the aftermath of a disaster. Girls who are healthy and educated can go on to be leaders for response and recovery within their communities.
However, girls who are forced to leave school early or who become ill, face potentially disastrous consequences that will affect them not just in the disaster period, but for the rest of their lives. Many parents are aware that education is a key to risk reduction, but sending their daughters to school is not always a simple matter of choice or desire. Protecting against risk can also mean limiting girls’ movement and access to education.
The 2010 floods damaged approximately ten thousand schools in Pakistan which took a heavy toll on the education system. According to a study conducted in Punjab and Sindh, the 2010 floods caused significant deterioration in schooling facilities. Not only were school buildings damaged – partially or fully – they were at times used by Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) as shelters in the immediate aftermath of the floods. A significant downward trend was noted in the school attendance of girls as compared to boys putting the future of children in jeopardy, especially of girls who already suffered due to lack of adequate schooling facilities. The post-2010 floods period presented a dismal picture of the state of middle and elementary education of girls. Comparing the school attendance record in pre and post-flood period found a larger number of girls as compared to boys absent from schools when the schools resumed in the affected areas.
Rights of a large number of girls have been violated: an increasing number of girls and young women were victims of early and forced marriages, and even more were exposed to violence in private and public spaces. Many girls still face the curtailment of their education.
The situation calls for longer term measures to work towards bringing change in the attitudes of the stakeholders for realisation of rights of the girls, particularly to ensure equal education opportunities for them.