How engendering development can reduce disaster risks for women

by | Mar 7, 2018 | Student blogs | 0 comments

Written by Heidi Parkes-Smith, a student on the BSc International Disaster Management and Humanitarian Response Programme. 


Gender and disasters
Whilst being female in a disaster setting does not in itself increase your vulnerability, gendered power relations can massively limit a woman’s ability to prepare and respond to disasters. For example, the Male Guardianship System in Saudi Arabia prevents women from leaving their homes, even in crises situations, without male permission. Meanwhile, socially constructed roles and norms in countries across the globe mean that a woman’s role as a carer for children and the elderly can slow their escape.[1] As a result, studies have proven that more women tend to die in cases of disasters than men. A prime example indicated by the UNISDR disaster and gender statistics is the cyclone disasters in Bangladesh where 140,000 people died, a colossal 90% of which were women. Disasters, then, are undeniably gendered events.[2]

The Nepal Earthquake and gender
To delve deeper into the effects of disasters on women, Nepal can be used as a striking case study. On Saturday 25 April 2015 the Nepal Earthquake (7.8 on the Richter scale) killed close to 9,000 people and destroyed more than half a million homes. Statistics from the Nepal Police Force revealed that more women and girls lost their lives than men and boys. In the response phase single and disabled women in particular faced discrimination in food distribution, relief materials, and compensation from the Nepali government.[3]

Yet what is the most alarming in the case of Nepal is the severity of the more intangible secondary effects of disasters on those women who did survive. Sadly, already existing gender-based violence (GBV) in Nepal greatly intensified. The Global Protection Cluster stated that the earthquake strained Nepal’s already weak protection system, and as a result sexual violence and the trafficking of women and girls massively increased. Following the earthquake, women slept in makeshift tents in government camps, not wanting to return home due to fears of violence.[4]

People living in temporary tents and shelters made from tarpaulin at the Tundikhel IDP camp in Kathmandu, Nepal, battle heavy afternoon rains. The start of the monsoon season is expected to hamper relief efforts. On Saturday 25th April 2015 an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter Scale struck Nepal. Wade, Aubrey. “At Tundikhel camp, people living in temporary government tents and shelters.” (photograph). [Accessed 5 November 2017]

How could risks of gender-based violence following the Nepal Earthquake have been reduced? Short term solutions such as locks on bathroom doors and sufficient lighting in homes can reduce immediate risks to sexual violence.[5] But this is not enough.

Humanitarian responses are also not enough. The UN Flash Appeal resulted in UN Women and other organisations working on the ground to respond to gender-based violence following the earthquake. Whilst the Flash Appeal positively supported GBV affected women during the response phase by offering them counselling services, we have to ask ourselves, what can be done to prevent GBV happening in the first place?

Engendering development is the answer
Relating disasters to development is crucial as it means the causes as well as the symptoms of disasters are taken into account. Whilst an increase in GBV is the symptom of a disaster, the cause is rooted in gender inequality which is prevalent in Nepal. The only way this cause can be addressed is with engendered development.

In short, engendering development involves listening to and including women in development plans.[6] Yet for it to make a real difference to women’s safety in the world today, it must address unequal power balances between genders.

A focus on addressing the balance of power between genders links to the Gender and Development (GAD) thread of engendering development. GAD questions social norms, suggesting a need to challenge existing roles and relations between men and women. It can be equated to the dependency theory of development as it focuses on addressing the root causes of underdevelopment.[7]

Has GAD had a positive impact?
There are examples of organisations working in Nepal that successfully enforce GAD, such as Womankind Worldwide and Women for Human Rights (WHR). Not only are they helping vulnerable women to rebuild their homes and lives following the earthquake, but they are advocating to ensure the rights of women in Nepal are respected and realised in the long-term.

Womankind Worldwide. “Members of a Dalit Women’s Group set up in Nepal.” (photograph). [Accessed 5 November 2017]

However on a larger scale GAD is not as effective as it could be. The World Bank claims to adopt GAD, yet its project ideas do not match this claim. An example to illustrate this would be its goal of increasing attendance numbers for girls at school by building water sources close to schools.[8] The project suggested that girls would be more likely to attend school because they could carry water back home with them at the end of the day.

This project suggests that to the World Bank, women are merely an efficient means to achieve wider economic goals. Instead of addressing inequalities, this project actually enhances stereotypical gendered roles.[9] The World Bank’s approach to engendering development better equates to the Women in Development (WID) model. WID was an approach which emerged in the 1970s focussing on incorporating women into the ‘modern’ sector by changing legislation around employment and education, which better equates to the modernization theory of development.[10]

International Financial Institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank dominate the development scene, yet their only goal is economic development. Tackling gender-based violence is however not only crucial in reducing GBV, but can also contribute to economic development as stated by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).[11]

Engendering development could therefore be a priority for all actors involved in development. Development projects should focus not only on creating equal opportunities in education and employment, but addressing inequality in the home and wider society under GAD. Addressing gender power relations by challenging social norms is the only way forward in reducing GBV in Nepal, as well as in many countries susceptible to disasters across the globe. It is the only way to make women safer and increase their likelihood of surviving when a disaster strikes.


[1] Bradshaw, Sarah. “Engendering development and disasters.” Disasters. 39 (2015): 1-22
[2] Bradshaw. “Engendering development and disasters.” (2015): 1-22
[3] Magnelli, Mariela. “One Year on From the Earthquake: The Women Rebuilding Nepal.” [Accessed 25 October 2017]
[4] Oxfam International. “Nepal Earthquake: Our work in camps and rural areas.” [Accessed 4 November 2017][5] Magnelli. “One Year on From the Earthquake.”
[6] Walby, Silvia. “Gender mainstreaming: productive tensions in theory and practice.” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society. 12 (2005): 321–343
[7] Bradshaw. “Engendering development and disasters.” (2015): 1-22
[8] Bradshaw. “Engendering development and disasters.” (2015): 1-22
[9] Bradshaw. “Engendering development and disasters.” (2015): 1-22
[10] Bradshaw. “Engendering development and disasters.” (2015): 1-22
[11] Sida. “Preventing and responding to Gender-Based Violence: Expressions and Strategies.” [Accessed 25 October 2017]


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