1. Callister, Lynn Clark PhD, RN, FAAN

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Multiple natural disasters, such as famine, floods, mudslides, typhoons, and earthquakes, are occurring across the world. Millions of people are in crisis and lack food, clean water, medication, and emergency shelter. In December 2007, the United Nations Secretary General made an appeal for $3.8 billion to support 25 million people in humanitarian emergencies in 24 countries globally ( In February 2008, UNICEF sent emergency supplies to meet life-threatening needs of 7 million people in Tajikistan suffering from crises associated with power cuts and severe water shortages ( These media headlines demonstrate the critical needs that exist worldwide when disasters strike. In addition to natural disasters, women and children are often victims in the crossfire of military conflict in places such as Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo Iraq, occupied Palestinian territory, Sri Lanka, and the Sudan. Tragic stories are told of atrocities committed during wartime.

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Women are more vulnerable during disasters because they lack access to resources and are the primary caregivers for children and elderly and disabled persons. They are constrained by gender stereotypes and family responsibilities, which leave them with less freedom to alleviate economic burdens. In the Asian tsunami, only one woman survived for every three men because they were carrying children and protecting the elderly. Their long-flowing clothing made it impossible to climb trees or even swim.


Other issues specific to women make them vulnerable in disasters. For instance, because many midwives died in the tsunami, Indonesian women gave birth in unlit tents, unattended, cutting the umbilical cord with bamboo. Women also may be victims of intimate partner violence and sexual violence after disasters. Women have more difficulty than men in accessing needed documents to receive food, healthcare, and other social services. Religious conventions also can have an impact on women. For instance, if Muslim women lost their headscarves while in flight, they could not go out to get aid. Women may be rendered invisible, with their voices silent in times of crisis.


On the other hand, women often display considerable strength and resilience after disasters, providing immediate relief to their families and communities. Women also tend to form groups and mobilize the community to meet pressing needs with creative solutions. For example, Visaka Dharmadasa founded the Association of War Affected Women in Sri Lanka, established the Tsunami Women's Fund, and lobbied to be part of the decision-making groups rebuilding Sri Lanka. Her son is among the thousands of missing persons in a deadly civil war that has divided Sri Lanka.


Women have a unique ability to cross ethnic, cultural, religious, and political barriers to achieve results. Heartwarming stories are told of disaster relief efforts by women's groups such as the Afghan Institute of Learning, which provides culturally appropriate assistance to Afghani women and children. Natural disasters provide the impetus for much-needed social changes. For example, in Sri Lanka 1 year after the tsunami, with reconstruction assistance from the United States for micro-credit, women started home-based snack shops and worked to replace fishing nets and buy silk weaving looms.


UNICEF, UNFPA, UNAIDs, PAHO/WHO, and organizations such as the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW) emphasize the protection of women and children in postdisaster situations ( Priorities include ensuring access to water and basic sanitation, providing access to isolated communities, providing food for pregnant and breastfeeding women, children, and infants, and protecting women and children from violence. The president of Women Thrive Worldwide said, "Disasters will always happen, but the best way to help the poorest people, especially women, is to ensure they are less poor and so less vulnerable the next time something strikes" ( Women and children can be empowered through the provision of resources during disasters and in low-resource settings (Keeney, 2004).




Keeney, G. W. (2004). Resources for providing care for women and infant in disasters and low-resource settings. Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health, 49, Supplement 1, 42-45. [Context Link]