Are earthquakes like the one in Nepal different for women?

By Anna Kramer

Disasters don’t affect everyone the same way. Our aid efforts need to take that into account.

Sangita Kafle was asleep when it happened. “My children were at home playing when all the furniture started to shake and fall around me,” she recalled. “I woke up covered by books and photographs fallen from the shelves. I grabbed my phone and my kids and ran out of there. We left with nothing.”

Kafle, her husband, and her two children—a son, age 3, and a daughter, age 7—survived the earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25. But they had to abandon their damaged apartment in Kathmandu. When an Oxfam photographer met her on April 28, Kafle’s family was in the Tundikhel camp for displaced people, sharing a leaky tarpaulin shelter with 17 other people. Meanwhile, Kafle was caring for several relatives who were hospitalized with injuries. “I go up and down each day to visit them, to try to arrange food and the medicines they need,” she said.

A major crisis like an earthquake affects everyone—women, men, and children. But not everyone experiences those effects in the same way. Women, including moms like Kafle, face particular struggles when their world is turned upside down.

A mother sheltering in a temporary camp might have a hard time keeping small children clean, fed, and safe. An elderly woman might not be able to access or use communal facilities. And a young woman might be the target of sexual harassment or worse. This week, for example, the Guardian reported that tens of thousands of young women from earthquake-affected regions are now at risk of being targeted by human traffickers. “There is nothing like an emergency when there is chaos for opportunities to … traffic more women,” said one aid official.

Compounding these difficulties is a more ingrained problem: in many communities, it's not easy for women to make their voices heard and ensure that their needs are prioritized.

That’s why, in emergencies, Oxfam tries to keep the needs of women and girls in sharp focus. We ask ourselves, are women and girls safe? If not, do they have a safe way to report the problems they’re facing? Where will we place latrines and washing areas that will be secure for women and girls? What particular relief items do they need and want? How can we be sure that the most vulnerable women can access food and restart their incomes? What roles are men playing in making the environment safe and equitable?  And the overarching question that can affect all the others: do women have a strong voice in decision-making about the disaster response?

As we assist communities in the aftermath of the quake, these questions--and the women who have the answers –are helping to guide our work. We have a vision of gender equality and justice, in which women in Nepal and around the world hold their governments accountable at times like these, and are welcomed into leadership roles.

It all comes back to a word we use a lot here at Oxfam: empowerment. Empowerment is the process of gaining control over the self, over the ideology and resources that determine power. Women’s empowerment is the process through which women become aware of how power structures operate in their lives and gain confidence to challenge gender inequalities.

Empowerment is sometimes a long process. It can be challenging. But even during crises like the earthquake in Nepal, it’s a goal we should not lose sight of.

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