Humanitarian crises — whether caused by natural disaster or conflict — hurt women and girls the most. Women and children account for more than 75 percent of refugees and displaced persons globally. They are up to 14 times more likely to die during a natural disaster than men. And all forms of violence against women increase during disasters and displacement.
Women’s vulnerability to disasters is not a sign of biological weakness, but of social inequality.
Disasters and conflicts only exacerbate existing disparities. After the disaster, the struggle does not end. Women are also more likely to experience poverty, poorer health outcomes, pressure to marry early, loss or reduction in education opportunities, and an increase in their workload after traumatic events.
This International Women’s Day, I urge you to remember that despite these trends, women are more than victims. They are valuable partners in rebuilding after disaster or conflict. They need to be viewed as such. But in order to be an equal partner in rebuilding, they need to be empowered in their greatest time of need. Resilience cannot flourish when a significant group of people is excluded from aid efforts.
When women are provided the right support, they can overcome disaster and crisis:
Women like Yaya, a 34-year-old widow, who lives in Cameroon at a camp for internally displaced people with her five children. When Boko Haram violence entered her village, she watched as her husband was taken from her and killed. In order to protect her kids, she decided to leave everything behind and flee to safety. She was provided with a sturdy tent to live in and now has a safe, private place to begin to recover with her children. It doesn’t restore what they lost, but it helps return a sense of normalcy and ability to protect her family.
Women like Fatnizar, a mother and seamstress from Indonesia, who took refuge with her family under a tarp in a field, after an earthquake destroyed their home and her sewing business. The shelter she received provided her not only a place to live, but also a place to sew again and continue her business.
Women like Ayman, a refugee in Syria who has been displaced multiple times over the last five years, fleeing from place to place in search of safety as the civil war continues. She struggles daily to survive in a displacement camp with her five children with no running water, no electricity and rudimentary sanitation. The shelter, water filtration and solar lights she received allow her to keep her family warm in the harsh winter and to have light and clean water.
By empowering women like Yaya, Fatnizar and Ayman, we enable them to make the right decisions for their families and communities. While providing aid to women may not completely change existing cultural norms around gender, it sends a message that they serve a valuable role in recovery.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme of #BalanceForBetter goes beyond the boardroom and the C-Suite. It betters a community’s ability to bounce back after disaster and can save lives in the process.
Ned Morris is a volunteer ambassador and response team member for ShelterBox, an international disaster relief organization that provides emergency shelter and lifesaving tools necessary for helping women and their families get back on their feet after disaster and conflict.