Given recent events in Japan it seems like an opportune moment to reflect on the gendered dimensions of natural and other kinds of disasters. The reflections here are part of a more sustained analysis I make in an article forthcoming in the Michigan Journal of Gender and Law entitled "Women, Vulnerability and Humanitarian Emergencies."
The catastrophic dimensions of humanitarian emergencies are increasingly understood and more visible to states and international institutions. There is also some recognition of the gendered dimensions of humanitarian emergencies in policy and institutional contexts.
It is generally acknowledged that women are overrepresented in the refugee and internally displaced communities that typically result from many humanitarian crises. Women bear acute care responsibilities in most societies, and also disproportionately bear familial and communal care responsibilities in communities affected by disaster, war and natural emergencies. Women, given their disparate social and legal status in many jurisdictions, may have less access to capital, social goods and other legal means to protect themselves when crises arise. While tacit acknowledgement of this reality increasingly permeates academic and political discourses, the depth of the descriptive often fails to capture and fully grasp the extent of gender harms and gender insecurity.
Moreover, as experts and policymakers calculate how best national and international communities should respond to such emergencies, women are frequently substantively and procedurally sidelined. This follows from the dual effects of a dearth of women decisionmakers in the relevant high-level fora and the failure to meaningfully imagine and include solutions to the particular issues affecting women in communities emerging from various emergencies. Disaster-related research suffers from considerable bias, revealing an asymmetrical distribution of gender themes, an absence of data on women’s lives and a male bias in identifying the channels from which information is sought.
The recent events in Japan offer us further opportunity to reflect on the intersection of women’s experiences with situations of humanitarian crisis. My goal is to give greater traction to a feminist analysis of women’s experiences in situations of extremity.
In particular, I argue that in order to fully understand the context of women’s specific vulnerabilities, we have to widen and deepen the frame of investigation. In short, we need to take account of pre-existing conditions. We must start by contextualizing the ordinary experiences shaping women’s lives, which form the bedrock upon which a specific crisis is then foisted. The specificity of vulnerabilities subsequently identified in the moment of crisis can only be completely understood and fully addressed by reference to the backdrop. But, accepting the reality of such situated vulnerability does not take us far enough. Institutionalizing helplessness and propagating its inevitability continues to perpetuate a conceptual framework that fails to address the underlying causes of women vulnerability in situations of extremity. This requires a more nuanced approach, seeing compounded vulnerabilities for women in which prior discrimination, exclusion and social marginalization interplay with the specific harms and vulnerabilities foisted on women in situations of crisis. These two elements [the prior and the present] are in constant interplay. Moreover unless experts accept the predictability of such crises their planning will suffer from obvious, gender-biased defects.
By extending and reframing our understanding of why vulnerability is pronounced for women we may both expose and address the limits of current international legal obligations in addressing women’s harms and needs in the context of humanitarian crises. We do so by returning to basics, addressing the persistent social, economic and political discriminations that are routine for most women in most societies, most of the time.
(photos from post-tsunami Japan (c) 2011 Associated Press, available in slide show here)