Women bear the brunt of calamities

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Monday, March 16, 2015


MEREDITH, a mid-40s spinster, recalls her Sendong experience from a different perspective, somewhat in an obverse position to the popular description of dread and darkness.

"Sendong killed thousands, but it also built lives," she shares.

Before Sendong, Meredith was an informal settler along the river coast of a private village in Cagayan de Oro City.

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She sold vegetables by day and barbecue at night for a living. Living with her were her younger sister and the latter's children.

She supported her sister, who attended a public secondary school. She was the sole breadwinner of this atypical family structure.

But Sendong took the lives of her sister and the children.

Yet, out of the water and into the light, a new sense of hope flourished as Meredith, being the sole survivor received help materially and non-materially (stress debriefing) from both the government and nongovernment organizations (NGO).

She was given free house and lot so she could start anew.

"Before Sendong, I barely have a place to stay that I call my own. But after the disaster, I was able to own a house," she states.

Cynthia, a widowed woman in her 30s, recalls her Sendong experience: "I lost my husband and children to flood. I just woke up and my entire family was gone."

Cynthia was a typical housewife. Her husband works at a construction firm to feed a family of five.

"Although we owned our house in Balulang, we always struggled to survive hunger," she says.

"With the meager wage my late husband earned, I had to stretch a kilo of rice for a week's consumption or so."

Like Meredith, Cynthia received assistance from the public and private sectors.

"For the first time in my life, I had not had sacks of rice at home; at least not after Sendong," she says.

The two women see the positive side [if any] of a natural disaster.

Why is this so?

Let us look at sociology for insights.

When I studied Medical Sociology as among my desired subjects for a graduate degree in sociology at Xavier University, it was lectured that natural disasters, in opposition to popular perception, might actually bring out the best in any society.
For instance, people become more charitable with donations coming in and out.

And this optimism may explain the positive experiences of these two women.

But, as a sociological phenomenon, natural disasters may also be seen as machinery that perpetuates poverty, at least in one sociological paradigm.

Gender differences that place women as second-class citizens are a reality during natural disasters.

In fact, the following are summary of the selected literatures in medical sociology on how women are at a disadvantaged position during calamities:

1) Women are more likely to die than men during natural disasters. In fact, Oxfam studies estimate that thrice as many women die during disasters;

2) Women are at risk for violence, especially of the sexual kind;

3) Women do not receive appropriate healthcare;

4) Women may be denied adequate relief aid or compensation for losses;

5) Women experience heavier economic vulnerability;

6) Women who usually have lower educational attainment will have difficulty finding employment during relocation;

7) Caretaking responsibilities of women may deter them from gainful employment after relocation;

8) Women are excluded from a say in rebuilding and reconstruction.

During a faculty lecture, Dr. Ma. Theresa Sharon Linog, a physician and a medical sociologist, together with Dr. Magdalena Cabaraban, a demographer and sociologist, shared the findings of their study entitled, "The Disaster Relief and Rehabilitation Efforts: Experiences, Practices and Policies," which supports the following:

1) There was no equal treatment between men and women during relief efforts following a calamity;

2) Hygiene kits were not gender-specific. No sanitary pads for women were provided;

3) Inappropriate items for donations were noted: high-heeled shoes, gowns and shoulder bags;

4) The special needs of pregnant women were not addressed: no maternity clothes, no access to obstetrician and midwife, etc...

In general, the following findings are also noted in the study:

1) Natural calamities strengthen the poverty cycle;

2) A mendicant mindset is encouraged;

3) High reliance on political patronage.

Gender differences and discrimination are common even during disasters.

Women remain more disadvantaged in comparison to men. Should there be equality, I hope many will also consider looking into the situation of women in times of natural disasters.

[Email: polo.journalist@gmail.com]

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on March 17, 2015.

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