Oxfam India's gender expert, Ranjana Das writes about the impact of disasters on women

Oxfam India's gender expert, Ranjana Das writes about the impact of disasters on women

  • By Ranjana Das
  • 23 Aug, 2019

As part of a team that recently conducted a needs-assessment in four flood-ravaged districts of Kerala, we were at Kuddukari village of Ramanagiri Panchayat of Alleppey district where we met Saritha. She showed us an interesting water filter – an aluminum pot with a sponge, from an old bed, at its base. For most people, this is an interesting community-based knowledge; but few will understand Saritha’s plight – who has to fill the pot many times a day to be able to provide clean, filtered water to her family in the aftermath of the floods.

I was a part of the humanitarian team and having worked on gender issues, I was keen to record how women’s domestic work gets affected during and post disaster. At the community level, the immediate needs are housing and household items which have been damaged severely, and availability of work and wages so that the community can cope with the losses. Most assessments by aid agencies mainly focus on livelihoods and assets; these include the recovery of agriculture, horticulture, biodiversity, animal husbandry, tourism, handlooms, and handicrafts. However, domestic workload is an aspect which most of the agencies tend to overlook.

It entails detailed discussion with women to understand their daily routine and how it changed post-disaster. We visited a few of the affected villages in Alleppey and Pathanamthitta districts. The houses are severely damaged; the situation of the kitchen, where women spent most of their time as part of the daily chores, was even worse.

Walking through the villages, it wasn’t difficult to miss the deplorable conditions in which women were cooking. With homes and kitchens flooded and water logged, to an extent, even destroyed, they were seen cooking in the open on earthen stoves and broken gas stoves. The utensils (whatever is left of them) were stacked outside in the open, often on a raised platform; and had to be washed before and after every meal. It had to be organised every now and then. This was going to continue till such time that the houses were repaired, restored back to how it used to be.

Communities in Kerala have always followed the age-old practice of boiling their drinking water. Perhaps this one practice saved them from a massive diarrhea outbreak. Speaking to women, it was evident that while it saved lives, their workload had doubled in the aftermath of the floods. They were now boiling water not only for drinking purposes but also for washing utensils.

For some of the households, nearby water collection points – taps, well, etc – were damaged. Women now had to walk almost double the distance to collect drinking water; they got up an hour earlier every morning just to collect water. This has its domino effect. For instance, women in Eraviperoor panchayat depend on firewood for cooking. The extra rounds of boiling water means that firewood collection has also gone up. Earlier they used to go for firewood collection once or twice a week, but now it is up to four times. These extra rounds of water and firewood collection in addition to their daily routine work of cooking, cleaning, and caregiving was adding to their domestic workload. This has added to their household drudgery.

If the distress of losing their homes, assets and livelihoods was not enough, the women have to bear the brunt of additional household work and recovering from the damage caused by floods. And this domestic workload is not something that is accounted for during assessments conducted by humanitarian agencies.

There is a need to recognise the increase domestic workload after natural disasters and especially analyse it from the perspective of women. Gender mainstreaming efforts in disaster management led to issues of health and hygiene needs of women being met to a considerable extent. Many humanitarian agencies known for WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Health) interventions now reflect a gender sensitive approach. Menstrual hygiene, collapse of sanitation facilities, and lack of private spaces has come into the spotlight as a result of years of gender sensitive disaster management trainings and eventually, programmes.

For instance, the relief kits, along with hygiene promotion material, carry either a pack of sanitary napkins or cash coupons so that women and girls can buy napkins of their choice from the local market. In places where women use cloth instead, agencies have been able to provide locally made cloth napkins; this ensures greater acceptability. Toilets are constructed to ensure safety and privacy for women. Submerged tube-wells are raised and extra space for washing clothes for women is provided. There are few other organisations that also look into the impact on violence against women, especially in the light of rising incidences of trafficking of women and girls after natural disasters. Though these are not exhaustive to address all of women’s needs during the recovery phase, but they definitely make their lives easier.

In the current scenario it is thus important that Aid agencies move forward and take cognizance of the domestic workload on women in their assessments. Because the impact of disaster on women’s domestic workload is ignored, the recovery programmes often add to women’s burden. Most of the long term recovery programmes are around water, sanitation, health and hygiene as well as restoration of livelihoods, and skewed towards women who are often formed into committees and trained to implement the recovery programme.

Thus, there is a need for domestic workload assessment along with an understanding of gendered division of labour within households. It should not be a mere exercise of collecting data and information about women’s daily routine but also to design programmes in an effective manner that does not add to their domestic workload in the post-disaster recovery phase. This is one important aspect that will make gender assessment and subsequent actions holistic and gender sensitive. 

For example, all WASH activities tend to only involve women for awareness on practices. Such practices, while extremely useful, add to their household chores. Setting up a filtering unit or cleaning up of affected water supply system within a household should involve both men and women in the family. If this was brought into practice, then perhaps it would not be the sole responsibility of Saritha to fill the water filter; instead it would be a shared responsibility of her husband as well.

This article was prepared after a visit to Kerala as a part of an assessment team last year during September after Kerala floods. The author is a development professional and currently working with Oxfam India.

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