The Atrocities Facing Women in Times of Disaster

Alex Moore

In the wake of International Women's Week, I would like to reflect on the effects of disasters on women around the world.


Researchers at the London School of Economics and the University of Essex surveyed data from 141 countries over a 21-year period and found that natural disasters kill more women than men. Furthermore, studies reported by the UN have stated that women die at a rate of up to 14 times higher than men, boys, or even girls when disaster strikes. This has been found to be because women are often adversely impacted by cultural and social traditions that limit their mobility to respond in a disaster.

For example in 2004, Oxfam International undertook a survey after the deadliest tsunamis ever recorded ushered the destruction of over 200,000 lives  throughout Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the east coast of Africa. This survey found that there were four times more women that died then men in the tsunami. This was partly because many of the women and girls, despite the fact that they lived in a coastal community, were not allowed to learn to swim and therefore did not know how to swim or climb trees to save themselves.

One of the reasons behind such high women fatality rates is that according to the United Nations Development Program, "60 percent of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people are women."  


After a disaster, for women new dangers include sexual violence and sexually transmitted infections. It has been found that "displacement, stress and trauma are familiar features following a disaster and tend to intensify pre-existing risk factors for domestic abuse."

Charlotte Yellowlees, Associate Salvos Legal, found through her work that when the UN declares a woman a refugee and they go to a refugee camp they are usually separated from their husband. This means they become the sole protector of their children and/or nieces and nephews and this leaves them very vulnerable. Most women Charlotte has dealt with have turned to prostitution within the refugee camps to ensure their children have basic needs and most of them have suffered from being sexual abuse. This shows, that after a disaster not only have the women been left to be the sole carer for the children but they are then victimised and treated poorly in places they are meant to be going to for relief and protection after losing their homes and livelihoods.

Relating back to the devastation of the tsunami in 2004, it was found that for some of the women that were rescued by male rescuers, they were asked for sexual favours and due to a sense of obligation the women succumbed to their demands.

Another example is in 2010, an earthquake wrought havoc in Haiti- the aftermath however has been described as an epidemic of sexual violence with one study showing 14 percent of those polled said "that a member of their household became a victim of sexual violence after the earthquake."

How do these international examples relate back to Brisbane, our home you may ask? Well studies found that after the Brisbane flood disasters in 2011, reports on domestic violence in our area nearly doubled. 

Natural disasters are beyond our control, they do not distinguish between race or class or gender. Despite this, they have an unbalanced and severe effect on certain demographics in our world and that boils down to what these disasters bring out in us. Disasters often result in acts of unimaginable heroism and selflessness by humanity. Why is it then, that at the time when we most need to display our humanity, so many of us lose it?

As we look back upon this year's World International Women’s week, we should ask ourselves: have we finally learned from our past?

 1 Eric Neumayer & Thomas Plümper (2007) The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters: The Impact of Catastrophic Events on the Gender Gap in Life Expectancy, 1981–2002, Annals of the Association of American Geographers.

2 Sarah Bradshaw and Maureen Fordham, 2013. Women, girls and Disaster: A review for DFID (cited 11 March 2016)

3 Ross P, 2014 ‘Why gender disaster data matters: ‘In some villages, all the dead were women.’ (cited 11 March 2016)

4 United Nations, 2013. Gender and Climate Change: (cited 11 March 2016)

5 The Atlantic, 2011 (cited 11 March 2016)

6 Centre for human rights and global justice, 2012 (cited 11 March 2016)

7 Queensland Council of Social Service, 2011. The Queensland floods and the community sector: contribution, challenges and lessons for the future. (cited 11 March 2016)