In any disaster situation, women and children are the most vulnerable group. But what really happens to women's issues in situations like this? At one end of the spectrum are women in rural areas who even in normal circumstances suffer from numerous ailments and are cut off from access to many basic health care facilities, by virtue of their location in some remote part of the country; a situation that only gets exacerbated when put in a state of emergency caused by a natural disaster like the floods of Bihar.
The very first thing that happens in a situation like this is that the loss of livelihood of earning members of the family shifts the focus to accessing basic food at the expense of all other needs and requirements. Thus, even basic health care needs of women get overlooked in the face of the most daunting and pressing issues of starvation.
The recent Bihar floods have shown that an extremely serious but woefully unattended problem with regard to women is related to their menstrual cycle or the needs of lactating mothers who have lost their babies -- reflecting the fact that disaster relief work very often begins operations from a gender imbalance. The unavailability or scarcity of clean water only exacerbates their condition. Pregnant women are unable to access hospitals or healthcare professionals and deliveries take place in the village, in their homes and in the absence of midwives who have often been the people these women most often depend on. Domestic abuse cases also increase fueled by frustration arising from male unemployment and other factors with limited or no arenas for redress as domestic violence is viewed within the private sphere. The susceptibility to abuse comes from factors related to migration by men to seek job opportunities for the use of sex as the currency in exchange for even basic resources. Besides, female unemployment tends to be disproportionately higher after a disaster especially since they are also involved in an informal industry. With few or no avenues for earning many are forced into the commercial sex trade as a means of survival for themselves, their children and families.
Diametrically opposite is the situation in an urban setting like Mumbai - the target of the most recent terror attacks in the country. Women face no less reproductive health concerns here than any other part of the country. Negotiating child birth and contraception and access to medical health facilities are just the commonest of those issues. But what happens to women when events hold the potential of drawing very clear lines between communities and how one views the" other." Mumbai in very recent months witnessed political violence that specifically targeted groups or communities from certain regions of the country. With the discourse on terror and how it should be dealt with holding the potential to swing to knee-jerk and extreme retributive reactions it particularly tends to place women in a more vulnerable situation. With more power to be vested in state machinery to be better prepared for a similar crisis in the future comes the possibility of that very same power being used to exploit women unless specific conditions and provisions are worked in as deterrents to prevent such misuse.
Incidents such as the November 26 terrorist attacks have very often been the flashpoints to significantly define and entrench once blurred lines and divisions between communities especially in a multicultural, multi-religious context such as India's. And if those working with women on issues that are more specific to them whether it be with regard to contraception, pregnancies, child birth or other sexual and reproductive health issues fall prey to these very prejudices, and allow these divisions between communities - manifested through an atmosphere of distrust of the "other" - to guide their work then the results can be calamitous. Suspicions, mistrust and prejudice tend to then operate both ways - from the healthcare provider and the recipient.
Specific community groups that are structurally disadvantaged and/or where gender-based oppression is common in normal times are also the places which during and post disasters entrench such discrimination further which directly affects women and the manner in which communities chose to protect them from the "other" through a variety of restrictions and controls. And prejudice, both subtle and overt, subsequently inflames even further at such fragile moments. Moreover, healthcare and disaster relief often are distributed through biased institutional power structures that have been one of the main causes of the unequal treatment contributing to how and why girls and women get left out as they rarely have a place in this power structure. Socially marginalized groups face deprivation and abuse under normal circumstances, are also the ones that again become easy prey for prejudiced lenses. And that frequently manifests through disaster relief or ex gratia payments. Practices that otherwise might not have been prevalent then start resurfacing like child or early marriages of the girl, preference for the son, restrictive freedoms and fraternal marriages.
There is also resource related discrimination as girls are the first from the family who drop out of schools to be more productive. With women not considered as heads of the household they very often get left out of the relief or ex-gratia. Often the promise of jobs to wives, following the spouse's death, also does not translate into anything substantial since frequently the women are not educated enough to be able to hold a job that contributes substantially to the entire family's survival.
Besides, sensitization even within communities across genders becomes even more critical at times like this since men and women occupy the same patriarchal, traditional set up and hence their behavior is guided and often in response to what they perceive (correctly or incorrectly) as demands of their particular context and subcontext. And men, especially in situation like this feel the pressure of and act on orthodox notions of masculinities further adding to the vulnerability of the women in these households.Originally Posted at RH RealityCheck.org.