Our children are our future


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We Want Work”: Rural Women in the

Gujarat Drought and Earthquake
Elaine Enarson

May 2001

Our bodies are our wealth

Our houses are our workplace

Our children are our future

Our lives are full of crises
SEWA poster, Ahmedabad, Gujarat

The Black Friday Earthquake: Social Context and Impacts 1
In the past decade alone, two damaging cyclones, a malaria epidemic, flooding, and a prolonged drought have hit the state of Gujarat in northwestern India. 2 In the early morning hours of a national holiday (January 26), a 7.7 magnitude quake centered in the town of Bhuj in Kutch district killed at least 20,000 people and injured many thousands more. Second only to the 1773 earthquake, which took more than 300,000 lives, the two-minute tremor caused extensive damage to houses, buildings, infrastructure, livestock, and natural resources. The area of heaviest impact was the northwestern district of Kutch, where few structures in the towns of Bhuj, Anjar, Bhachau, and Rajkot remained habitable. Collapsing buildings 275 kilometers away in Ahmedabad, the state’s business and cultural center, killed 750.

Although Gujarat is one of India’s most prosperous and industrialized states, more than 60% of the population earns a living from the land and poverty is widespread. The earthquake destroyed or damaged more than a million homes, leaving some 600,000 residents homeless months before the coming monsoons. Over 20,000 cattle died. Water harvesting systems across the desert region were extensively damaged, and abrupt alternations in the salinity of water were reported in some areas. Damage to public facilities was extensive. Of 1,359 schools in Kutch, 992 were destroyed; 300 youngsters were crushed when their schools collapsed on them during a Republic Day parade. Damage to hospitals and clinics took the lives of many patients and medical staff, and the four district centers for mentally and physically disabled residents were destroyed (Mistry 2001:5).

Relief was uneven. Despite recent tremors in nearby Bhavnagar, which kept 50,000 people sleeping on the streets for over a month (Vasta 2001), no state disaster management plan or agency was in place. Remote villages throughout Kutch were slow to receive assistance, as were those in the surrounding districts of Patan, Banaskantha, and Surendranagar. Panchayat (local government), military, and state responses were hampered by lack of institutional capacity and emergency preparedness, making residents’ spontaneous search and rescue efforts even more critical. State governments in India bear primary responsibility for emergencies. However, the Government of India soon intervened in light of the scale of destruction and the “weak and chaotic” response of the nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which holds power in the state and leads the governing coalition at the central level (Vatsa 2001). Offers of foreign assistance were quickly accepted, including those from Pakistan made possible through “disaster diplomacy.”3 Within two weeks, an estimated 245 governmental and nongovernmental agencies from India and around the world were conducting relief operations in Gujarat. The state government soon established a new agency for emergency management and developed a number of recovery and reconstruction measures, including direct payments to individuals for housing damage, personal injuries, and livestock loss; extension of existing drought relief work to earthquake relief; and the immediate construction of nearly half a million semi-permanent dwellings.4

“Black Friday” hit an extraordinarily diverse people who reside in a desert region of a nation shaped by colonial domination, the forces of globalization, and the struggle against both. In addition to political tensions between the BJP and the opposition Congress Party, residents are divided by caste, social class, and religion. Soon after the quake, dalit (“untouchable”) and adavasi (tribal, or indigenous) leaders protested caste barriers in the distribution of relief goods, water, and land for temporary encampments. Religious divisions apparently privileged some survivors over others as emergency relief resources controlled by faith-based NGOs were distributed first to believers.5

As conditions deteriorated, existing and emergent groups organized protests, for example against the slow arrest of contractors held accountable for unsafe construction methods. A sit-in in one village shut down a major highway in protest over lack of water deliveries by government tankers. Over 4,000 residents in Bhuj, where building destruction was nearly total, demonstrated against government plans for their mandatory relocation to a new town site (Times of India, March 16). But media attention soon shifted to concurrent financial and political crises and an absorbing scandal in the military/political procurement process (Times of India, March 18). When the government put forward its annual budget, a national tax surcharge but no direct line of funding was provided for earthquake relief. The relief efforts of most humanitarian agencies wound down after three months.6
Action research on poor rural women’s livelihoods
It is in this context that the Ahmedabad-based Disaster Mitigation Institute (DMI) undertook to assess the compound effects of sustained drought and a major earthquake on the livelihoods of poor women in the district of Surendranagar.

Active since the 1979 cyclones in participatory research, planning, and action to reduce vulnerability, DMI’s work reflects an analysis of disasters as “unresolved problems arising from the very processes of development” (Twigg and Bhatt 1998:3). Women’s livelihoods in disaster-vulnerable regions are a particular concern, as the Institute identifies women as important community actors, income-earners, and stewards of natural resources whose efforts increase the food, water, housing, and fodder security of the rural poor. Noting the invisibility of women in relief operations, lack of gender-specific data, and inattention to women’s unique needs in disasters, a recent DMI publication concluded:

In addition, women are active workers in South Asia. Although the majority of work is home based, how disasters impact such work is neither studied nor known.7

The research was enabled by DMI’s established presence in the quake- and drought-affected regions of Gujarat. Since the late 1980s, DMI has conducted numerous workshops, consultations, meetings, and focus groups with highly vulnerable villagers.8 In the wake of the January quake, the Institute worked through its organizational and personal networks to help focus attention on the economic survival of the poor. DMI director Mihir R. Bhatt cautioned that the significance of work,9 like damage outside the Kutch reason, might be overlooked (Pathak 2000):

[W]e need to get priorities right, that is, first focus on work and livelihood. Second, focus on water and community infrastructure. And third, focus on shelter and services. Shelter without water and shelter without work makes limited sense.

This report describes the major findings from a DMI study conducted in March, 2001 into the effects of the twin disasters of drought and earthquake on village women in northern Surendranagar. The following sections address, in turn, indicators of gendered vulnerability in India and Surendranagar; guiding research questions; research strategy and study site; findings and implications; research needs and final observations.

The Social Construction of Gendered Vulnerability

Vulnerability analysis attributes the social effects of naturally-occurring events to the social relations, institutions, culture, and power relations of people who reside in hazardous built and natural environments.10 As neither the routine nor extreme events of life are experienced identically by women and men, gender relations have come under increasing scrutiny.11 As a social category cross-cutting class, caste, culture, religion, and age, gender shapes men’s and women’s lives in ways that matter in disasters.12 While gender differences are relevant and need investigation (e.g., in women’s and men’s coping strategies, the division of labor, emotional impacts), it is the subordination of women that puts girls and women at risk in disasters around the world.

Indian women have enjoyed suffrage rights since Independence under a constitution guaranteeing many kinds of formal equality. The nation is committed to a policy of increasing women’s freedom and autonomy but gender inequality here, as around the world, is deeply rooted. Women’s social, economic, and political status, male-dominated cultural systems and social institutions, interpersonal relationships, and the reinforcing constraints of caste, class, and age leave a great many girls and women poor, overworked, sick, illiterate, and silenced (see Table 1 below).
In the face of chronic or sudden disasters, these patterns translate into lack of economic assets (savings, credit, land, tools, training), personal safety and nutrition, health care (maternal and reproductive), social security (education, child care, insurance), political voice (in the media, electoral politics, village councils, households, and personal relationships), education, transportation, and other resources vital to survival and long-term recovery (Walker 1994; Enarson and Morrow 1998).

These gender patterns were conspicuously unexamined in the aftermath of the January 26 earthquake, in striking contrast to the interest of the media in caste-based inequalities. As “misery is more interesting to report” (Chowdhury 1997), most photojournalists showcased images of grieving and exhausted women (e.g. Chakravarti 2001). Indeed, Gujarati women were victimized by a damaging earthquake occurring in the second year of a major drought. Many thousands lost their lives.13 As well as losing housing, employment, and family members, poor rural women lost the child care centers, community centers, school buildings, and health centers upon which they depend. Many anganwadi centers providing government assistance “completely collapsed, leaving an estimated 1.5 million women and children without nutrition support and health services” (UN OCHA 2001). An increase in child labor due to extreme economic need is feared, especially among girls; the NGO ActionAid (2001) has also cautioned that young girls orphaned by the earthquake (or misrepresented as orphans) may be at increased risk of sex trafficking.

Table 1

Women at risk: indicators of social vulnerability

These and other indicators of women’s life chances, social status, and living conditions reduce the ability of girls and women to prepare for, cope with, and recover from disasters.

  • a skewed sex ratio (934 women: 1000 men) in Gujarat reflects conditions prevailing across India (927:1000);

  • an estimated 25 million women are “missing” due to sex-specific abortion, femicide, high rates of violence against women, nutrition and health care preferences disadvantaging girls, and other factors;

  • 65% of all Indian women report having experienced some form of domestic violence, with the highest rates reported among women employed as agricultural laborers;

  • 54% of Gujarati women marry before the age of 18; marriages are often arranged; widows rarely remarry, especially in rural areas;

  • the average Indian woman is younger than 22 when she bears her first child and lacks control over her own fertility;

  • 45 % of Gujarati women need permission to go to the market and 49% to visit friends and relatives; 29% are not involved in decisions even about their own health and 10 % about what to cook; only one quarter have access to household money;

  • fewer women (48.6%) than men (73.13%) over six enjoy functional literacy; literacy rates are lower among adavasi or tribal women ( 24.20% ) and women in the Scheduled Castes (45.5%);
  • one in four girls did not attend school in Gujarat even before the earthquake destroyed their schools; many of these “nowhere children” are likely to be working in the informal sector;

  • the vast majority of the nation’s women earn income through informal work, where working conditions are poor and few workers are organized;

  • women hold fewer than 8% of Parliamentary seats, 6% of Cabinet positions, and 3% of administrative and managerial positions in the nation;

  • Indian women earn an average of 30% less than men;

  • 100,000-120,000 women across India die every year due to pregnancy-related problems; half of all married women suffer from anemia;

  • most Indian women do not own any property in their own names and don’t inherit parental property; barely 2% of women claim their family property rights.

Sources: Sen and Kumar, 2001; Government of Gujarat 2000.

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