Wrong conversation

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In the weeks that followed the April 25 earthquake, dozens of articles made light of the fact that natural disasters, including earthquakes, are usually worse for women. While generally true, this conversation does not go far enough and must be better nuanced: Different women experience disaster differently according to a variety of factors, including geography, age, class, caste, ethnicity, marital status, and position within the household and community.

In framing this disaster rhetoric primarily as "something that happens to women", it not only boxes women in as categorical victims and robs them of their ability to make purposeful decisions, it also overlooks the vital role that they can play in disaster response and development.

I visited the villages of Tinpiple and Dapcha in Kavre recently to try to understand how local women themselves view the disaster and its aftermath. In many ways, they agreed with what has been circulating in the media—their experience and needs after the earthquake were different than those of men. While men became anxious about how they would continue to earn a livelihood, enough to support their family and to rebuild their houses, women's anxieties focused more on the immediate short term: how they would keep their children safe, prepare the next meal, care for the sick, and clean what needed to be cleaned.

The women, many of whom were still sleeping with their families in tents, also worried about how safe it was for them to go to the bathroom at night. Stories had been circulating around the water tap that there had been an increase of young, unmarried women going to the hospital saying that they were pregnant, presumably because they had been raped. Another woman has a husband working in Malaysia. He told her that he has other debts to pay off, and that she would have to figure out how to rebuild their damaged house on her own.

While these are all experiences of women, they are not the experiences of all women, and it is important to recognize this distinction. One reason why women were believed to be more impacted in the earthquake was that it was thought they were more likely to be at home doing housework at the time, rather than working out in a field.

However, in one group of women I spoke with, only one of the five women had actually been at home when things began to shake. The other women, many of whom are active members of different community organizations, were busy running errands in nearby towns. This suggests that where women were when the earthquake struck cannot always be pinned to broad, gendered categories, but instead depends on a combination of factors such as class and mobility, which can be vastly different among women even within the same community.

The fact that different women experience disaster differently is true for the post-disaster and recovery process as well. Around both Tinpiple and Dapcha, the shifting ground caused some springs being used for water collection to dry up, while others became more plentiful. As a result, some girls and women now have to walk farther to other springs and spend more time collecting water, while for others, collection is easier.

Wards, as administrative units, can also inadvertently serve to differentiate women and their families: In hilly regions, wards are often delineated up hillsides. If relief is destined for a specific ward, those women and families who live closest to the road have the potential to receive more support than those who are not. In Tinpiple, the women said that widowed or divorced women are experiencing some of the biggest difficulties.

One disabled, widowed woman has two ropanis of land, but because of the earthquake, the people who farm the land are unable to pay her. After the earthquake, she moved into a tent with another family, but soon, the tent was taken away. She currently has no home, no means of income, and no one to take care of her.

In effect, then, to merely say that women are affected more in disasters come across as insufficient when one starts to take into account the heterogeneity that exists within the category of women. Worse, it leaves the potential for relief efforts to focus on women generally, with the result that the women who need it most may not receive the proper attention. As the country's reconstruction process moves forward, it will be necessary to translate this more complicated understanding of women's circumstances into practice.

Lastly, the disaster rhetoric that emphasizes women's suffering tends to take away focus from the dynamic role that women have the potential to play in rebuilding their communities. This is in part because women bring a gender-specific perspective to discussions, and also often have social networks that differ from men's, which frequently reach some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

Significantly, the women in Kavre did not see themselves as victims, but as individuals who must figure out how to effectively move forward without waiting for the help of outsiders. One woman started laughing as she told the story of how she had wanted to be part of the relief effort, so against the wishes of men nearby, she tied a shawl around her face and went to the roof of a house and helped demolish it. Relief efforts will come and go, but it is locals like these women who ultimately have the task of rebuilding their communities in the years to come.

This article was first published in Republica as an op-ed piece on Saturday, 11 July, 2015. The original article is available here. 

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