What happens to women and girls during disasters?

Every year, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, typhoons, drought, floods, and even volcanic eruptions can impact hundreds of thousands of people. In any disaster, no matter where in the world, it is important to remember that some people are going to be more vulnerable than others. And when a disaster hits, these vulnerabilities can lead to additional heartache and tragedy for those affected.

That’s why it’s important to consider these vulnerabilities before a disaster or emergency strikes.

Disasters can impact men and women differently.  While more men die as first responders in a disaster, because they take more risks, more women die as a result of a disaster especially when they live in societies with cultural restrictions based on societal norms.
Why? The quick answer is that this was the result of societal restrictions and gender roles.  But how can something like that actually happen?

The area of Gender and Disasters studies was first started to understand why 70% of the people who perished during a hurricane in Bangladesh in the 1970s were women and girls. They found that cultural norms, restricted how women and girls should learn, act and dress. For example, the idea that swimming wasn’t a skill for girls meant that women and girls were less likely to learn to swim to safety. Clothing limited women’s mobility and  in some cultures women are not able to leave the house without the permission of a man – meaning that even if they had warning they might not have been able to evacuate. They did not participate in early warning systems that told them a disaster was imminent or provide their opinions of how that information could be best communicated to them.  

Gender roles meant that in some situations, women stay at home and when a disaster hits have the responsibility of not only caring for but carrying  children and elderly people to safety, and therefore would have been slower at escaping.

Another way that disasters impact women in through violence. There is evidence that shows sexual and gender-based violence increases following a disaster. It’s important to note that sexual and gender-based violence does occur everywhere in the world, but the risk increases in vulnerable communities – like one that has just experienced a disaster.

Aside from the sex of the affected person, other factors such as age, ability, LGBTI status, race and other factors also play an important how a person may be, or may become, more vulnerable in a disaster. During Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans a few years ago, black American women and the elderly (both men and women) who were the poorest in that region, were the most affected, as they lacked the means and ability to get out of New Orleans.
The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) is committed to having effective gender and diversity strategies and processes in place to make sure assistance reaches the most vulnerable. As a part of the Red Cross Movement worldwide, the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) is equally committed to address the different vulnerabilities of men and women and at the same time, include them in opportunities to engage in meeting their own needs and become more resilient to disasters.      

Together, the IFRC and CRC is working to help build resiliency so that communities are prepared for disasters. These initiatives such as the Regional Resiliency Initiative covering 11 countries in South East Asia, include addressing gender and diversity considerations so that everyone has access to services and protected.

Work is also being done to educate about violence prevention.

Considering things like gender and diversity in programs is crucial when responding to a disaster. Sometimes this can be as simple as making sure there are secure washroom facilities and safe places to gather water, but it also can mean putting systems in place for people to report when sexual and gender-based violence does happen.

Capacity building doesn’t just mean that people will be taken care of, but actively engaging people from vulnerable groups in resiliency work, like this women-led fire brigade in Myanmar.


Right now, we are marking 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, during which everyone is encouraged to become an ally in eliminating sexual and gender-based violence. The Red Cross and Red Crescent have taken this pledge on sexual and gender-based violence in emergencies with a focus as part of our commitment to gender and diversity.  You can test your knowledge of gender and diversity facts from around the world with this quiz
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