Natural Disasters: Women And Pashtun Society (Part One)

Northern Pakistan is more than often plagued by natural disasters, whether triggered by natural hazards or human behaviour or by the interaction between the two, which affects millions of people for long periods of time. Oftentimes, the effects are quite daunting and last for several decades, even after the disaster has long disappeared from headlines and the news. This, in turn, has dire consequences; especially, when it comes to social and economic development. This article will aim to explore some of the particular issues affecting women – Pashtun women in particular – during natural disasters, and the specific vulnerabilities they face when a natural disaster strikes. Though, it must be articulated that there’s a bit of controversy with using the term “natural disasters,” for it’s often a combination of natural hazards and human action that cause a disaster, which is usually defined as follows:

The consequences of events, triggered by natural hazard, that overwhelm local response capacity and seriously affect the social and economic development of a region. [1]

Nevertheless, a disaster is a disaster, whether it is human-caused or natural; and usually when a disaster occurs – whether an earthquake, flood or a hurricane – everyone is significantly affected. But, specific groups are impacted differently. It is understood, for example, that poor people are more likely to have less durable homes and live on more marginal lands than the wealthy – they, hence, tend to be more directly affected as a result of disasters. Similarly, women suffer differently from men and are impacted far more greatly.

Conversely, there are a few generalizations that will be drawn upon with regards to Pashtun women’s experiences in disasters. For one, Pashtun women are more likely to die and to suffer ill health effects as a result of natural disasters, such as early pregnancy loss, premature delivery, stillbirths, infertility, etc. There may also be social taboos around norms of what is considered appropriate behaviour and what is not that may further contribute to health problems in young women. For example, in the 2010 Pakistan floods, for every one adult male that drowned in the treacherous waters, there were at least three to four women that drowned. This is because in the Pashtun culture, many women/girls don’t learn how to swim or climb trees as it is considered “unwomanly” and culturally inappropriate, and many are unable to leave their homes for cultural/religious reasons; these reasons include not being covered properly (or at all, in religiously and/or culturally appropriate attire), or the fear of their being seen by non-relatives who are male, or other such factors that limits, and has limited, their exposure to the public sphere.

Further, Pakistan is a country where social and economic rights for women are almost nonexistent, and where women, in their everyday lives, do not enjoy rights equal with those of their male counterparts. This is supported by statistical analysis of the effect of natural disasters on the life expectancy of women and men, which revealed that women were more likely to die in natural disasters and their consequences, and that this effect was strongest in countries with very low social and economic rights for women [2].

Nevertheless, one of the root causes of gender disparities is deep-rooted segregation between male and female populations, which has further isolated women from all decision-making processes and structures. This, as a result, affects their abilities and agency during disaster situations, where they rely on men to help guide them, not realizing that they have the will and power to take their lives into their own hands and find any, or all, means to survive, regardless of the consequences thereafter. For example, in the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan – which killed 73,000 people – women were mostly at home when the earthquake occurred, while their adult male relatives were outside of the home, either working in the fields or running household errands. This is because these women were not aware that they needn’t ask their male relative’s permission, in order to leave their houses, during a potentially fatal natural disaster. Yet, due to this lack of discernment, women were more apt to be injured by collapsing homes than their husbands/brothers/fathers/male cousins; and UN agencies hence reported a large number of women who suffered from considerable physical disabilities [3].

Not surprisingly, though, the Pashtun women who do manage to survive also tend to have higher levels of depression than men after a horrendous disaster has occurred. A UNHCR spokesperson, who ran a welfare center in Pakistan for the victims of the 2010 Pakistan floods, reported that the majority of the women suffered from panic attacks, depression and anxiety. This is due to primarily losing homes and all means of livelihood in the floods [4].

Moreover, inevitable gender inequities are evident in response to most disasters, where many disaster and emergency management agencies are, and have been, historically dominated by men. These men may have the tendency to overlook the special needs of women, especially with regards to sanitation, contraceptives, etc. Thus, traditional cultural patterns and norms present particular difficulties for many women after a disaster has occurred. During the 2010 Pakistan floods, many of the displaced Pashtun women, living in camps, realized soon enough that privacy and maintaining purdah (modesty) was difficult. This is because many had never been around a man who wasn’t a member of their family before. Yet, all of a sudden, they were surrounded and living amongst hundreds and thousands of men, in steadfast tents, who were complete strangers. While already being extremely vulnerable, due to the effects of a disaster that they’d just managed to survive, these women suddenly had to face other qualms and tribulations, which was that of being raped and/or sexually assaulted in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Additionally, many of the younger girls in the IDP camps were also at high risk of sexual exploitation, which further added to the stress and depression.

So what can Pashtun women do in order to survive natural disasters? Though there is much to deliberate on this topic alone, there are ways in which Pashtun women can survive, as well as utilize the necessary coping mechanisms, in order to avoid the extremely destructive consequences of a natural disaster. These points will therefore be discussed, in detail, in the second part to this article.


[1] Inter-Agency Standing Committee, Protecting Persons affected by Natural Disasters: IASC Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters, Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, June 2006

[2] Eric Neumayer, and Thomas Plümper. “The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters: The Impact of Catastrophic Events on the Gender Gap in Life Expectancy, 1981–2002

[3] Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, Protecting and Promoting Rights in Natural Disasters in South Asia: Prevention and Response, July 2009.

[4] Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), “Pakistan: Changed Lives after the Floods,” October 2010

Also published on Qissa Khwani

One response to “Natural Disasters: Women And Pashtun Society (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Breaking The Silence On Gender-Based Violence (GBV) — Personal Accounts From Pakhtunkhwa | SesapZai - Mom. Artist. Academic. And a little bit of everything else.·

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