Untangling the role of social constructs in disasters


Disasters or natural hazards are the obvious, immediate consequences of climate change. But the consequences of these disasters are socially constructed, and it is only when we can untangle the role of social constructs in a disaster that we can begin to undo their harms.



GHNGNpicture_Climate Change and Gender by Katy D.


Natural hazards such as tsunamis, hurricanes, and floods are accentuated by rising global temperatures.  But these forces do not act on an equal world.  Pre-existing power structures built upon inequality multiply the negative forces of the hazards and leave some people significantly more vulnerable than others to our changing climate 1.  It is argued that the impacts of natural disasters are therefore socially constructed 2: that is they are felt unequally through constructs of gender, race, class, disability, and age among others. In fact, there is a movement to drop the term “natural disaster” altogether.  Many working in this area argue that a natural hazard only has disastrous impacts where it interacts with problematic human environments and social and economic conditions 3.


Viewing climate change impacts with an intersectional lens involves looking at how different groups of people are situated in power structures such as gender, race, and class that lead them to relate differently to climate change 4. The push to get these social factors recognised among the drivers of disaster is still ongoing.  One of the longer running discussions has been around gender-specific impacts of disasters.  It is recognised that death and injury in disasters are sex-differentiated 5 and that women die in greater numbers from climate change influenced natural hazards than men1, though this pattern was long concealed due to a historic lack of sex or gender-disaggregated data collection on disaster deaths 6.  As a result, there are still debates about the extent to which such disparities in impact have social, as opposed to biological, causes.


Gender norms cause women to fare worse in both immediate and longer-term impacts of these natural hazards.  Immediate impacts are those that cause immediate death or injury such as drowning, crush injuries or heat stress. Fatalities that are related to floods or tsunamis, such as drownings, have been shown to be consistently and significantly higher in women. In the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, in some areas, up to 80 percent of victims were female 7. This was thought to be due to the fact that women are not taught to swim, in combination with cultural clothing that is typically more likely to drag a person down or get caught on things in flood situations. Women are also less likely to leave the house alone through fear of dishonour or gender-based violence and tend to be slower to evacuate in emergency situations due to caring for young or elderly family members.


In the longer term, there are generally more barriers for poor women to recover their economic positions than poor men. They have fewer legal and land rights 1  and this is likely to be another impact of women’s low representation in positions of power that will influence equality in rights and therefore resilience 8. Women face barriers to accessing health services post-disaster due to both direct discrimination and to practical barriers preventing access such as household duties, access to transport and finances. Incidents of violence against women, including both gender-based violence (GBV) and intimate partner violence (IPV), commonly increase in post-disaster situations 9. In evacuation centres, poor lighting, and inaccessible bathrooms often lead to an increase in assaults. Family separation and displacement mean women may have to travel farther to search for food and water.


Changing legal structures may not be the entire solution says Anne Birgitte Albrectsen, chief executive of Plan International 10. A recent report by Plan International suggests that in all countries, even the world’s most gender-equal, gender norms are likely to have detrimental impacts beyond 2030 11.  The continuing failure to gather accurate disaster data means that much disaster planning cannot be guided by these statistics and ends up being “gender-blind” 12. Revealing the socially constructed nature of disaster impacts provides us with an opportunity to make a massive impact on the health impacts of climate change by factoring them into disaster preparedness planning.  It is important to view these facts as relating to gender power-relations, not just as relating to women in isolation 13.


Gender inequities, discrimination, and unequal gender power relations are making women more vulnerable to climate change hazards.  But we should also apply this lens to other forms of discrimination and social injustice. For example, health outcomes after Hurricane Katrina were hugely different across race and class.  We need to investigate how natural hazards interact with social injustices in order to be able to reduce vulnerability in these groups.  Moving forward, we need a focus on social change that can challenge these inequities rather than an adaptation that simply accounts for the inequities. Climate change can be used as a lens through which to view these inequities and highlights the need for social change alongside adaptation to climate change.


Nancy Wonders wrote, “Climate change has a tendency to reflect and exacerbate the world’s worst inequalities, including gender inequalities” 5. We need to be deeply conscious of these social divisions and structures that interact with climate change-driven hazards to brew the disasters that are not felt equally.  Only by using the lenses of race, class, and gender among others will we be able to engender the resilience needed in our social and political structures.  Climate change is far greater than just an environmental issue.



  1. Lovin and Bamsey. 29 August 2017. Gender must be at the heart of climate action. [Online]. Available from: <https://www.zilient.org/index.php/article/gender-must-be-heart-climate-action>
  2. Neumayer, E. & Plumpert, (2007). The Gendered Disasters : Events on the Gender of Catastrophic Gap in Impact Life Expectancy. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 97, pp. 551–566.
  3. 11 October 2017. Out of touch? Why disaster risk reduction can no longer neglect conflict. [Online]. Available from: <https://www.odi.org/out-of-touch>
  4. Kronsell, A. & Kaijser, (2014). Climate Change through the lens of intersectionality. Environmental Politics, 23(3), pp. 417-433.
  5. Wonders, N.A. & Danner, M.J.E. (2015). Gendering Climate Change: A Feminist Criminological Perspective. Critical Criminology, 23, pp. 401–416
  6. UN Women. 10 October 2017. Speech: “Innovation will be critical to break trends and achieve the SDGs”—Yannick Glemarec. [Online]. Available from: <http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2017/10/speech-ded-glemarec-women-world-changers>
  7. John Aglionby. 26 March 2005. Four times as many women died in tsunami. [Online]. Available from: <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2005/mar/26/internationalaidanddevelopment.indianoceantsunamidecember2004>
  8. Talib, Z. et al. (2017). Women leaders in global health. The Lancet Global Health, 5(6), e565 – e566.
  9. Kristine Aquino Valerio (2016). Storm of Violence, Surge of Struggle: Women in the Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, 20(1), pp. 148-163.
  10. Karla Medes. 22 January 2018. New attitudes, not just new laws, needed for gender equality, says rights group. [Online]. Available from: <https://www.zilient.org/index.php/article/new-attitudes-not-just-new-laws-needed-gender-equality-says-rights-group>
  11. Plan International. 22 January 2018. No country will achieve true gender equality by 2030. [Online]. Available from: <https://plan-international.org/news/2018-01-22-no-country-gender-equality-2030>
  12. Sophie Hares. 24 May 2017. ‘Gender blind’ disaster risk planning undermines countries’ ability to cope. [Online]. Available from: <https://www.zilient.org/article/gender-blind-disaster-risk-planning-undermines-countries-ability-cope>
  13. International Institute for Environment and Development. May 2014. Building resilience to environmental change by transforming gender relations. [Online]. Available from: <http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/17237IIED.pdf>



Katy Davis has a BSc in Neuroscience from the University of Bristol and an MSc in Global Health and Development from University College London where she currently works as a research assistant in innovative qualitative research methods for global health. 

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