Gender inequality exacerbates the impact of natural disasters, whose consequences compound it.
She will be called Aya. That is the name nurses gave to the infant baby pulled from the rubble of a five-storey building in Jinderis, northern Syria. A miracle. Beside her, the rescuers found her mother, dead. She had given birth within hours of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on the night of February 6th. Like her, more than 50,000 people died.
As tragic as it is hopeful, this story moved the international media. It reminds us that over 350,000 pregnant women who survived the earthquake urgently need access to health care, according to the United Nations. And this is only one aspect of women’s vulnerability to natural disasters.
Floods, droughts, earthquakes and other extreme events are not gender-neutral, especially in developing countries. Evidence shows that women and girls die in greater numbers and have different and uneven degrees of resilience. Of the 230,000 people killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, 70 per cent were women.
Because of gender barriers, women often have fewer survival skills: boys are taught to swim or read first. This makes it difficult for them to pick up and act on early warnings, such as in identifying safe shelters. In addition, it is more difficult for women to escape from danger, since they are most often responsible not just for themselves but for children, the elderly and the sick.
Heightened tensions and fear, as well as the loss of income provoked by disasters, meanwhile drive increased domestic violence against women and girls. They are also the first victims of sexual violence and exploitation when entire populations are displaced. This was one of the first concerns in Pakistan when more than eight million people had to leave their homes because of the terrible floods in June to August of last year.
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Natural catastrophes affect everyone economically but women and girls disproportionately so. World Bank data show that in rural areas female farmers suffer much more than male. Assigned to domestic tasks, they are more dependent on access to natural resources and are hit first when these become scarce.
In every global region, food insecurity is higher among women than men. In 2020, it was estimated that nearly 60 per cent of those who go hungry are women and girls, and the gender gap has only increased since. Relative lack of access to bank accounts means women’s assets are less protected.
Recovery from any crisis also builds on societal expectations as to gender roles. So women bear the brunt of the increased domestic burden after a disaster, at the cost of missing out on income-generating activities.
Women spend, on average, 3.2 times as much time as men on unpaid care work and the pandemic—another human-induced natural catastrophe—made evident how unequally unpaid care and domestic work, undervalued and under-recognised, is shared. This hinders women’s access to education, labour-market entry and advancement—as well as their political participation—with serious consequences for social protection, incomes and pensions.
Gender inequality exacerbates the impact of natural disasters and the consequences of such disasters compound it in turn. It is a vicious circle. With the world already facing a growing number of climate-related tragedies, governments must take immediate action to invest for the long-term—in universal healthcare, water and sanitation, education, social protection and the infrastructure for gender equality—as well as securing women’s human rights in full.
Even in times of crisis, there are ways to raise revenues—themselves ethically imperative on equity grounds—to fund the investments needed to strengthen women’s resilience. Those who profit from the crises ravaging the planet, including from natural disasters, must pay, as recommended by the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation (of which I am a member alongside, among others, Joseph Stiglitz, Jayati Ghosh and Thomas Piketty). Instead of implementing austerity programmes that devastate the most disadvantaged, states can increase their ‘fiscal space’ by taxing companies and the super-rich more.
It starts with taxing the super-profits made by multinationals, and several countries in Europe and Latin America have already begun to do so. This is particularly apt for the pharmaceutical giants that made a fortune selling vaccines against Covid-19, which they were able to develop due to public subventions. It is also the case for multinationals in energy and food: Oxfam estimates that their profits increased by more than two and a half times (256 per cent) in 2022, compared with the 2018-21 average.
For the same reasons, it is urgent to tax the richest, who get away with paying hardly any taxes these days. One cannot accept that, as Oxfam reminds us, a man like Elon Musk, one of the wealthiest in history, is taxed at 3.3 per cent, while Aber Christine, a market trader in Uganda who sells rice, is taxed at 40 per cent.
Progressive taxation—making the richest people and multinationals pay their fair share—is one of the most powerful tools for reducing inequality of all kinds. As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, let’s keep in mind that it is impossible to build more resilient societies without fighting for gender equality.
Continuing to ignore this is a political choice—and an even more perilous threat to development than natural disasters themselves.
Magdalena Sepúlveda is executive director of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and a member of the Independent Commission on International Corporate Tax Reform. From 2008 to 2014 she was United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.