The inclusion of women in disaster planning must be strongly advocated. Doing so would not only aid in effective disaster risk governance but also strengthen the resilience of all the members of a community by addressing gender-specific needs.
Given how Assam is home to a vast network of rivers, it is also prone to natural disasters like recurring floods, which in turn add to the vulnerabilities of the lower socio-economic groups in the state that remain dependent on its resources. The vulnerability of such groups becomes even more pronounced in times of natural disasters. As per UNICEF, 2.2 million people, of which 530,000 children and 790,000 women, were affected by the state’s annual flooding in 2022.
Despite Assam floods being a recurring phenomenon every year, there is yet no consideration of its female residents' healthcare and sanitation needs in conventional disaster response efforts. Though a large number of the state’s female residents are forced to bear the brunt of the devastating floods every year, they remain largely excluded from efforts towards disaster risk reduction and resilience, programmes and strategies.
It is imperative that separate toilet facilities are made available for the male and female inmates of relief shelters, in addition to separate toilets for disabled individuals and senior citizens. Inaccessible toilets have had a profound impact on defecation practices among women and girls, resulting in several cases of constipation and fecal incontinence among them.
Assam’s relief shelters lack proper, well-organized provisions for managing menstrual hygiene. As per a study, no separate toilet facilities for men and women were found in relief shelters in the Sonitpur, Biswanath and Nagaon districts. Women in the Nagaon district, for instance, utilised the shelter toilets just once in three days , that too if it was manageable.
Every year, defecation practices in Assam get constrained as toilets become unusable due to severe inundation by flood waters. It goes without saying that a woman and girl’s experience with open defecation is a harrowing one, affecting their dignity in the process, and marked by feelings of fear and anxiety due to lack of privacy.
While Assam’s districts have proclaimed themselves to be Open Defecation Free (ODF), the case is found to be otherwise when the state experiences its annual floods. Efforts must be taken up to preserve the ODF status of the districts at all times. It is imperative that this concern is immediately redressed, especially in light of the central government’s ambitious plans to declare Assam as ODF.
Child friendly spaces
Reproductive health facilities ought to be made available for both, expectant and nursing mothers in the relief shelters, along with adequate facilities that guarantee a sense of privacy. Cramped living conditions within Assam’s relief camps make it difficult for mothers to nurse their children. Further, relief camps are often characterised by inadequate drinking water facilities, toilets, and Child Friendly Spaces (CFS).
Child Friendly Spaces prevent any disruption in the lives of those children who remain forcibly displaced as a result of severe floods. Relief shelters must be marked by adequate space for children to play around in, learn and socialise. Further, protocols for ensuring the containment of COVID-19 must also take into account the safety and security of women and children. Social distancing norms must be religiously followed, as opposed to the congested living conditions usually found within Assam’s relief shelters.
Flood victims in Assam’s makeshift shelters often face difficulties due to improper menstrual hygiene management facilities. In the wake of any natural disaster, while Assam residents are entitled to receive gratuitous relief (GR) from the government, in the form of cash doles, food grains and clothing, it is seen that the importance of sanitary pads as gratuitous relief remains yet to be recognised by the government.
It is a hard reality that public conversations concerning menstruation often incite feelings of disgust. Therefore, raising awareness of this 'tabooed’ concept, especially in the context of natural disasters, becomes an added challenge for the government. However, the significance of menstrual health in the wake of natural disasters ought to be recognized, and the first step towards ensuring its recognition would be in doling out dignity kits (comprising of sanitary napkins, towels, undergarments etc.) as gratuitous relief.
The trend of accommodating women in disaster management efforts is a relatively new concept in the state of Assam. In 2022 itself, the Rifle Women group and the state’s female constables risked their lives to serve those who were stranded due to severe flooding in the Cachar district. Greater involvement on the part of such women workers shall help in addressing the needs of maternal and child healthcare better, and effectively deal with issues that question one’s dignity in times of natural disasters.
It would also ensure proper hygiene and fulfil nutritional needs towards building resiliency and gaining self-sufficiency in the wake of natural disasters. The inclusion of women in disaster planning must be strongly advocated. Doing so would not only aid in effective disaster risk governance but also strengthen the resilience of all the members of a community by addressing gender-specific needs. This would give them parity with men in regard to protection from the state’s devastating annual floods.
(The writer is a Master’s graduate in Political Science from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Views are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)