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Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Protecting Women and Girls from the Impacts of Disasters


REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro, courtesy Trust.org-AlertNet

Today the Women’s Refugee Commission joins other organizations in marking Disaster Risk Reduction Day, and the critical role that this work plays in reducing the health and protection risks of women and girls in crises. Natural disasters now account for 42.3 million of the world’s displaced people. The impact of such disasters has expanded over the past two decades, and they are now responsible for half of the globally displaced. As an organization that has spent more than 20 years advocating for an effective, gender-sensitive response to disasters, we understand the pivotal role that preparation can play in protecting and empowering the most vulnerable populations in the midst of crisis—women and girls.

That women are disproportionately affected by disasters is well documented: 90 percent of those killed in the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh and 80 percent of those who died in the 2004 tsunami were women and girls. The inequity exhibited in these numbers should shock us and move us—as members of the global community—to action. Gender differences in the loss of lives due to natural disasters are directly linked to women’s economic and social rights before the crisis, which impact their survival skills and their ability to access warning systems and rescue mechanisms.

For women and girls who do survive these events, the immediate impacts of a disaster — displacement, sexual violence and exploitation, disruptions in health services and the loss of financial security within a family unit—can lead to devastating, long-term effects, including school drop-out, early and forced marriage, trauma, an increased labor burden, increased rates of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and unintended pregnancy. Such experiences compromise a young girl’s ability to realize her own rights over the long term, and immediately place her at higher risk for reproductive health illnesses and related death.

Preparation, through disaster risk reduction efforts, has the potential to improve resiliency, response and recovery and thereby protect women and girls when disaster strikes. The Women’s Refugee Commission advocates for the involvement of communities (and specifically women, girls and vulnerable groups) from the beginning of preparedness planning. We believe that, with such involvement a population, including the most vulnerable, can be provided with the equitable protection they deserve. They can assist in identifying their own vulnerabilities, suggest early warning systems which they themselves can access, ensure their own inclusion in monitoring systems and share steps that can be taken to help them be prepared and more resilient.  

On this day, we look forward optimistically, with a vision to improve the resiliency of women and girls if, and when, they do face a crisis.

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights