Thursday, September 13, 2012

After a disaster, outcomes split on gender lines

What happens to people disabled by disasters like the 2005 Pakistan earthquake?

That depends if you're a man or a woman.

A University of Alberta study finds most paraplegic women three years after the Pakistan earthquake were abandoned by spouses and families, while men with the same disabilities were not. The study was published in the July issue of the journal Disasters.

A survey of 73 adults in six remote villages in Kashmir found that of 30 women married at the time of the quake and still hospitalized, 24 had been abandoned by their husbands, who had also abandoned their children. A physician noted that some women deliberately caused bed sores because they feared neglect and abuse if discharged home.

"Everybody has walked away from these women—forgotten about them completely,” said researcher Zubia Mumtaz, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health who studies gender inequality. “Society did not want them. They were just abandoned.”

In contrast, the wives of men with spinal-cord injuries lived with their husbands in hospital over the three years -- so that they could attend to all their needs, and the men were actively supported by their parents and other relatives.

While women's families initially rallied round them, researchers said, the support evaporated.

Most husbands of women with paraplegia had remarried—or were agitating to do so. No wives of men with paraplegia had left their husbands.

"The primary rationale given for remarriage was that a woman was required to undertake the domestic tasks that a paraplegic wife could no longer accomplish—child-rearing, farming and retrieving water and wood."

Monthly stipends were given to the spinal-cord victims. Men received about $70 a month while women got $30. The income would have been significant for the women, who were previously dependent. But it was often appropriated by husbands who, after leaving them for new families, made a monthly trek to the hospital to pick it up.

The researchers note that gender differences meant more women than men were disabled in the Pakistan quake. “The earthquake was unique in that it took place at about 9 o’clock in the morning, when the women were at home but the men were out in the fields," Mumtaz says. "When the homes crashed, when the roofs collapsed, those that weren’t killed were pinned by the steel roof beams." Sixty-five to 74 per cent of people diagnosed with spinal-cord injury were women.


This an eye-opener. Thank you for sharing it. I wonder if this type of research has been done with other countries and cultures that have suffered natural disasters.

Hi Anonymous -- the study includes references to a number of other studies that have shown similar findings. And a colleague of mine pointed out that there are gender-based trends in marriage statistics in the West when one person has a disability. That more men with disabilities are married to able-bodied women than vice versa. Thanks for writing.