Disasters and Gender

By Haruka Nakajima / Translated by Sachi Kikuchi
Illustration by Emily Howard

 Many disasters, including earthquakes and typhoons occur, but how is disaster-prevention, based on the equal treatment of genders, being carried out? In this article, I’d like to consider disaster countermeasures from a gender perspective. 

1. Increased Violence 

Violence appears in all forms during a disaster. Shiawase namida, a non-profit organization, points out that an “environment where sexual violence is likely to occur” is created in the event of an earthquake. For example, there are environmental factors such as increases in blind spots due to the collapse of a building and shared living spaces in evacuation centers. There is also a psychological factor – the stress caused by emergencies is likely to be directed at people in weaker positions, such as children.

The Training Center for Gender & Disaster Risk Reduction(GDRR) points out that half of all incidents collected in the survey on the Great East Japan Earthquake were domestic violence. There was also financial violence, in which donations or living expenses were not given to those for whom it was intended. In addition, there was “compensation-type” violence in which women in need were required to engage in sexual activity in exchange for the provision of supplies and housing.

As the center points out, it is difficult to publicize these problems after a disaster and take countermeasures. In a questionnaire survey on the Kumamoto earthquake conducted by Harmony, the Kumamoto City Gender Equality Center, one responder said, “I received a message from another mother who had experienced the Tohoku earthquake, saying not to allow girls to go to the washroom or play alone. I wouldn’t have realized this if I hadn’t received an email about it” (p. 8). The dangers of sexual violence may be obscured. Therefore, a gender-based perspective is indispensable in disaster prevention.

2. Countermeasures

What kind of efforts are currently being made in Japan? The Cabinet Office’s “Overview of Various Systems for Supporting Victims” includes contact information for “Human Rights for Everyone 110”, “Human Rights Hotline for Women”, and “Internet Human Rights Consultation Reception Desk”. However, depending on the situation, it may be difficult to access these organizations. For example, if you are in a place where many people are spending time together, such as at an evacuation center, the consultations will be much more challenging. In addition to providing a place in which consultations can occur safely, it is also important to create a separate evacuation center.

The Cabinet Office created the “Evacuation Center Management Guidelines” in 2016. This is based on the “Guidelines for Ensuring a Good Living Environment in Evacuation Centers”, which was formulated in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake. This guideline includes the section, “Considerations for Women and Children”, in which it is stated that “women and children have special needs. For example, by considering the need for sanitary napkins, changing rooms, and nursing rooms, we can maintain an environment where many people can be at ease” (p.51). The two items, “Consideration for Hygiene and Security” and “Securing an Environment Where Women Can Play an Active Role”, have 10 recommendations, including the following: “Install a women’s changing room / space” and “Consider securing a women-only place where they can talk with a peace of mind.” In addition, in the crime prevention measures, “Prevention of sexual crimes near toilets and bathing facilities” is specified.

It may be particularly important and difficult to secure a place for women to play an active role because disasters often reveal more of the existing gender structure. In addition to taking women into consideration, it is necessary to change the mechanisms and stereotypes in order to allow for more opinions to be reflected.

3. To Prevent Future Recurrence

After a disaster, it takes time for people to return to normal life. If the structure of violence and discrimination that was highlighted in the event of an emergency remains unchanged, it may not even be good to “return to normal life”.

Keiko Ikeda states in her article, “Using the Experience of Disaster and Reconstruction to Build a Resilient Society” that “gender is one of the factors that shape the root cause of disaster vulnerability. If you think about it, customs, power allocation, and resource allocation that existed in pre-disaster society are what cause people’s vulnerability. Relief and reconstruction efforts that utilize them as they are, reproduce vulnerabilities and are unacceptable. All disaster responses and reconstruction must include the aspect of improving vulnerabilities.”
(P. 2).

Harmony, the Kumamoto City Gender Equality Center, published a “Disaster Prevention Book, From the Perspectives of Gender Equality, Proposed by Those of Us Who Experienced the Kumamoto Earthquake”. This is a booklet that reflects a questionnaire answered by women who were raising children at the time of the disaster, and was based on the experience and survey of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake. In addition to including gender-related items such as “the harmful effects of fixed gender roles” and “preventing domestic violence and sexual assault”, it summarizes different concerns and difficulties for different groups of people, such as young people, the elderly, and foreigners.

In particular, there are great concerns about the gender balance of leaders in evacuation shelter management as well as the focus of childcare and long-term care on women. “Labour being divided in such a way that “those in charge of managing the evacuation centers are men, and those who prepare meals are women” means that the responsibility concentrates on men resulting in their minds and bodies becoming exhausted. On the other hand, women are responsible for the never-ending task of preparing meals which results in overworking and the inability to rest. These are situations in which both men and women are forced to push themselves to the brink” (p.7). The following opinion was also expressed in the questionnaire: “I think that the idea of men going to work, and women working and taking care of children basically by themselves became stronger after this earthquake” (p.7).

Such fixation of gender roles also leads to violence. In regards to the compensation-type sexual violence and domestic violence mentioned earlier, GDRR cites “gender inequality in decision-making” as one of the underlying reasons.

Based on the experience of the Kumamoto earthquake, Harmony is conducting interviews with evacuation center management staff, providing supplies, and disaster prevention insights from the perspective of gender equality.

In the event of a disaster, we need to help each other, but it is difficult to recognize these types of problems in an emergency. In order not to carry the discriminatory structure and values ​​that emerge from the disaster into the future, it may be necessary to take concrete measures when we are not in an emergency situation.

References (Japanese)

Ikeda, K. “Lessons from Earthquake and Tsunami Disasters in Indonesia and Japan: Toward “Disaster Resilient Society”. Journal of Gender Studies. 17. Ochanomizu University Gender Studies Institute, 2014. pp1-11. http://www2.igs.ocha.ac.jp/gender/gender-34/.

The Kumamoto City Gender Equality Center is Harmony. ” Disaster Prevention Book, From the Perspectives of Gender Equality, Proposed by Those of Us Who Experienced the Kumamoto Earthquake”

Training Center for Gender & Disaster Risk Reduction.

NPO Shiawase namida  http://shiawasenamida.org/m03_07

Cabinet Office. “Outline of Support for Victims” 2019. Http://www.bousai.go.jp/taisaku/hisaisyagyousei/seido.html.

Cabinet Office Disaster Prevention. “Evacuation Center Management Guidelines” 2016. http://www.bousai.go.jp/oyakudachi/info_jichitai.html.

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