Two months and two disasters in India have claimed lives under very tragic circumstances. Even as many groups are still supporting those affected
and displaced by the floods
in Bihar, in eastern India,
and since the events that unfolded over the next 60 hours since November 26 in Mumbai, all the way across to the western part of
the India, an uneasy quietude seems to have descended on the country.
Angered, shattered, in shock by not just the deaths and damage – because
Mumbai has seen worse – but probably more by the audacity of the attacks.
And it is the events that unfold after the actual disaster that define
the lives of those who survived – sometimes direct victims, at other
times victimized by the aftermath.
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.
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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 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
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.