by Kaushambi Bagchi

Disasters resulting from natural hazards wreak a multitude of havoc. Impacts of disasters are often differential across groups owing to pre-existing social and economic inequalities. Impacts of disasters have often been looked at through a heteronormative and western-colonial lens. The discourse on rebuilding after humanitarian crises such as disasters has paid lesser attention to its gendered impacts and feminist concerns that arise in how the aftermath of natural disasters manifests.

Natural hazards such as earthquakes and cyclones can become “disasters” as their effects interplay with underlying social, political, economic, cultural, religious contexts and other structures that are relational in nature (Dominey-Howes, 2018). The “environment” itself can be conceptualized as a social construction, in that the risks and opportunities that the environment presents are associated with the demands that different social systems put on nature, as well as how nature impacts these systems (Cannon,1994).

The social constructivist framework makes space for subjective and diverse conceptualizations of how hazards become disasters, of vulnerability to disasters, and the importance of involving multiple affected groups in decision-making processes (Burningham & Cooper, 1999; Jones, 2002). However, the over-emphasis on technocratic solutions and symptomatic rebuilding in the aftermath of disasters leave certain blind spots. For example, technocratic solutions often disregard cultural losses, often framed as subjective and non-real, such as loss of knowledge and values of subsistence-based practices, connection to land and nonhuman species, sense of place and social cohesion that affect indigenous communities (Afolabi, 2023).

The current framing of disasters and their impacts reproduces unequal dynamics of power. The locus of control of humanitarian action is Western nations, which are typically the “providers” of aid. The construction of vulnerability in the context of disasters is also essentially embedded in the dominant western colonial knowledge system and reflects its values and principles (Bankoff, 2001). This includes the othering of vulnerable populations, located in the non-Western world, and considered as “weak, passive, and pathetic” (Hewitt (1997) cited by Bankoff (2001)).

Impacts of disasters are often heavily gendered. Pre-existing gender and socio-economic inequalities can be exacerbated by disasters (Behrman & Weitzman, 2016). Current discourses on gender inequality in post-disaster rebuilding position it within a heteronormative and western-colonial framework where conceptions of gender are limited to the gender binary and the survivor constructed as a passive, “feminized” entity.

With the afore-mentioned theoretical grounding, in this piece I argue that (i) humanitarian action in post-disaster setting take a masculinist approach wherein “feminine” needs are accorded lesser importance, and (ii) post-disaster relief measures are embedded in a western colonial framework that constructs the recipient of relief and aid as “feminized” and “passive”. The latter presents the need and the opportunity to apply a feminist lens to post-disaster relief and rebuilding efforts. Such an approach, I contend, seeks to dismantle unequal power dynamics that are reproduced in humanitarian spaces and use approaches of inclusivity and decolonization in understanding the impacts of disasters, and rethinking post-disaster relief and rebuilding efforts.

Gendered Effects of Disasters

Responses to disasters often do not take a gendered approach even though their impacts are usually gendered. Adverse gendered effects such as those related to sexual and reproductive health and rights that include unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, lack of menstrual hygiene, pregnancy complications and maternal mortality can ensue not only from destroyed healthcare infrastructure, but also from shifting of institutional medical priorities away from reproductive health and towards emergency relief (Behrman & Weitzman, 2016).

Humanitarian crises require a broad conception of security that encompasses physical, social, economic, and sexual security (Smith 2019). This requires a focus on “gender inclusivity” rather than gender equality alone (Dolan, 2014; Myrttinen, 2017; Myrttinen, 2023). Feminists have long criticized the “instrumental” use of women during crises by simply making them the recipients of aid on behalf of their families and putting the “burden of care” on them (Smith, 2019; Hellman, 2021). This “feminization of responsibility” puts the onus on women to pull their communities out of crises, usually through unpaid care work (Hickel, 2014; Smith, 2019; Hellman, 2021). Such inclusion, is as problematic as the exclusion of women from crises responses (Bradshaw (2014) cited by Hellman (2021))

For example, and by virtue of their traditional “caregiver” roles, refugee women are positioned in humanitarian spaces as useful allies on the one hand, while simultaneously being constructed as victims of oppression perpetrated by refugee men who are represented as “backward”, “barbaric” and “patriarchal” (Olivius 2016). In essence, inclusion of women in humanitarian policy and practice capitalizes the subordinate status of the “feminine” while also constructing crises-stricken men in non-western countries to be in need of education and reform in a westernized sense (Olivius, 2016).

However, “gendered” effects of disasters are not synonymous with the differential impacts of disasters on (cis and heterosexual) men and women. When spaces of post-disaster rebuilding become a site for the reproduction of patriarchal gender norms, it extends to the exclusion of those at the margins, most notably the LGBTQIA+ community. For example, gender affirming hormonal medication may not be accessible either due to unavailability of providers or undervaluing of such medication; in case of large scale displacements, refugee-hosting countries could have laws that criminalize homosexual unions, access to hygiene products and gender-neutral bathrooms could be limited or entirely unavailable, and LGBTQIA+ folks might be more vulnerable to violence, especially sexual violence. Much of the empirical evidence on gendered effects of disasters focuses on the subordinate status of females rather than the subordinate status of the “feminine” (Dolan, 2014), thus ignoring the vulnerabilities of those who do not conform to heteronormative structures of gender and sexuality.

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The “Tyranny of the Urgent”

Feminist conceptions of the politics of crises point to the view that ‘urgency’ undermines an integration of gender concerns. In post-crises situations, national unity, neoliberal economic reform and military peacekeeping operations tend to take precedence over “distracting” feminist concerns (Watson & Mason, 2015). During the initial efforts to provide food, water, and shelter in the aftermath of a crisis, “feminine” concerns often get underplayed and neglected (Claeys, 2010). This phenomenon is called the “tyranny of the urgent” and has come to stand for disregard of longer-term structural issues in favour of hour-by-hour demands in the event of a crisis (Watson & Mason, 2015; Davies & Bennet, 2016). Furthermore, efforts towards gender equality continue to operate within the gender binary, and do not offer enough support to persons who are sexually or gender non-conforming (Dolan, 2014).

Urgency is sometimes manufactured around certain issues while some others are left for later in view of their apparent ordinariness in the face of what appears to be more urgent (Watson & Mason, 2015). This can be applied to disaster planning and preparedness wherein the focus is on emergency aid targeted towards immediate food and shelter rather than mitigating pre-existing structural issues such as gender-based inequalities (Fordham, 2013). By paraphrasing Berlant’s work (2007), Watson & Mason (2007) refer to this phenomenon as “slow death” in which “makeshift” responses undermine an ability to address structural inequalities.

The Interplay of “Masculinities” and “Femininities” in Post-Disaster Relief and Rebuilding Measures

Post-disaster measures are intended to alleviate the impacts of disasters with the objective of returning to normalcy (Fordham, 2013). These are typically top-down command-and-control measures focused on response to crises, and are centralized and hierarchical. Such an approach is embedded in a dominant masculine culture.

Often the first line of response in humanitarian crises including post-disaster situations, is the deployment of security forces (Smith, 2019). The security sector is characterized by the dominance of hypermasculinity, wherein physical strength and aggressiveness are paramount (Ni Aolain, 2010; Smith, 2019) with most crises responders being men. At the same time, there is a “feminization” of survivors whose position is rendered powerless in the face of crises, and dependent on security forces for necessities (Smith, 2019). Deploying security forces in times of humanitarian crises also leads to an increase in gender-based violence (Tripp et al., 2013; Smith, 2019). The danger of perpetration of violence, both sexual and other forms, by masculinized institutions looms large for both normative men and women.

When governance of post-disaster situations involves masculinized institutions, it leads to the reproduction of patriarchal gender norms in spaces of decision-making and implementation (Smith, 2019). Gender justice goals of humanitarian aid usually look at gender differences as individual differences between (cis and heterosexual) men and women (Olivius, 2016). For instance, Olivius (2016) discusses this in context of refugee men and women wherein refugee men are represented as “primitive” and “emasculated troublemakers”, thus seeking to empower women at the cost of victimizing men. Refugee men are framed as the “agents of inequality”, thus pathologizing refugee men’s masculinities as barbaric and in need of modernization and reform. Refugees are, therefore, constructed as “feminized” and “passive” recipients of aid in humanitarian policy and practice (Olivius, 2016). This highlights the interplay between “masculinities” and “femininities” rather than men and women, and the subordination of the “feminine” and the “feminized” in post-disaster situations.

Inclusive and Decolonial Approaches to Post-Disaster Rebuilding

The above discussion begs the question – has a feminist lens been applied to post-disaster relief and rebuilding measures and if not, then why is it important to do so? A first step towards answering this is to acknowledge that at its core, a feminist approach takes cognizance of unequal power dynamics and the necessity to dismantle it.

Epistemic decolonization, as opposed to physical decolonization has not been achieved yet, especially in the space of humanitarianism (Fujita, 2020). In a sense, colonization in this context is the apparent superiority of the ontology and epistemology of Western nations vis-à-vis the non-Western world (Fujita, 2020). Humanitarian aid, including post-disaster rebuilding is still a largely state-centric, formal endeavour located within the heteronormative and western-colonial consciousness (Sulley & Richy, 2023; Bankoff, 2001). The sense of otherness that exists in the cultural discourse of development and vulnerability that frames typically non-Western regions of the world as “disease-ridden, poverty-stricken and disaster-prone”, with Western preventive systems as the panacea (Bankoff, 2001), continues to dominate humanitarian spaces. This presents the need to rethink such practice using gender inclusive and decolonial approaches.

An inclusive approach to post-disaster rebuilding advocates for moving beyond the gender binary when considering gendered effects of disasters and incorporating the unique needs of people across the gender spectrum during post-disaster relief and rebuilding efforts. On the other hand, a decolonial approach seeks to dismantle the power dynamics between the provider of aid (typically the ‘colonizer’ West) and the receiver aid (typically, ‘colonized’ non-Western countries). It seeks to shift the locus of control to those affected, and strives for a bottom-up, community-driven, and participatory approach to post-disaster rebuilding.

A decolonial approach also accords importance to the cultural shifts brought about by disasters. This is especially true for indigenous communities for whom disasters could lead to the destruction of their cultural identity (Afolabi, 2023). For indigenous people, their affective connections to their ecological space and their knowledge of subsistence-practices are part of their culture and their way of life, which is threatened and destroyed during disasters (Afolabi, 2023). Qualifying such destruction as ‘cultural change’ and disregarding indigenous ways of living, such as their affective connections to their land and to non-human companions and to the ecological space they dwell in (Afolabi, 2023), is embedded in the Western colonial mentality, and reinforces the call for the adoption of inclusive and decolonial practices in disaster relief.


Discourses on climate change and looming environmental crises, led arguably by the West has tended to put the burden of proof of environmental action on the non-Western world, while simultaneously large multi-million-dollar corporations continue to exploit natural and human resources in poorer countries with impunity, exacerbating climate concerns. Several regions in the Global South have been wrecked by environmental crises, for example, heatwaves across major regions in South Asia and the threat of such regions becoming unliveable in the near future, and devastating floods, to name just a few.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in a 2022 report used the term “colonialism”, leading to mainstream acknowledgement of the intimate association between climate crisis and colonial histories. The ‘developing world’ has for long been the dumping ground of hazardous waste, and years of colonial exploitation has altered sustainable practices rooted in native ecosystems. The onus of climate action ought not to be placed either on the individual or on the part of the world that is framed as the other in the international order. In the age of anthropogenic climate crisis, if the debate is about reduction in the luxuries of the rich versus compromising the basic necessities of the poor (Garvey, 2008), then rethinking our approach to tackling environmental crises becomes imperative. While climate action has to do with aspects such as reducing our carbon footprint, it also has to do with how social systems have been designed. Looking at social systems through a feminist lens that centres “power” and where it resides could reveal the ways in which the non-Western countries with a colonial past (and present) are disproportionately ridden with poverty and affected by disasters and extreme weather events as a consequence of colonial exploitation. While Western nations can continue to pollute, the consequences will be borne by the non-Western world, unless the framework for climate action is one of inclusivity and decolonisation.

The author would like to thank Prof. Benjamin William Cashore for his inspiring classes where the idea for this article was conceived and for helpful discussions and comments on an initial draft of this piece.

Kaushambi Bagchi is a Doctoral Candidate in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Her research focuses on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and the explanatory roles of intrahousehold bargaining power and socio-cultural norms in understanding SRHR outcomes in South Asia.