Natural and man-made disasters: the vulnerability of women-headed households and children without families

World Health Stat Q. 1993;46(4):227-33.


Since 1980, over 2 million people have died as an immediate result of natural and man-made disasters and by 1992, the refugee population registered nearly 16 million people. This article reviews the human impact of disasters as a composite of two elements: the catastrophic event itself and the vulnerability of people. It also examines the specific case of women and children in the current world emergency context. It identifies four broad policy areas that affect women and children in disaster situations and discusses them with examples and field evidence. The first policy area addresses humanitarian assistance and armed conflicts, and armed conflict and international humanitarian law, the use of food as instrument of war, mines and civilian disability, and rape and sexual violence are discussed within this context. The second problem discussed is the issue of unaccompanied and abandoned children in terms of its magnitude and implications for relief response. Thirdly, the article examines the differential risks in emergencies for mortality and morbidity, specifically for women and children. Finally, it addresses certain policies and approaches to disaster rehabilitation which effectively mirror and reinforce inherent inequities in the affected society. The article notes that: (i) the largest proportion of disaster victims today arise from civil strife and food crises and that the majority of those killed, wounded and permanently disabled are women and children; and (ii) the ability of any country to respond effectively to disasters depends on the strength of its health and social infrastructure, and its overall developmental status. It concludes by identifying seven areas where concrete measures could be taken to improve the current situation.

PIP: Women and children are the people most affected by civil strife and food crises. A country's successful response to crises will depend on its preexisting infrastructure in the health and social sectors and its development status. The 1992 world refugee population was 16 million, which was a growth of about 500% since 1970. Another 1.2 million have been internally displaced. Over 300 million people in 1992 had homes or livelihoods destroyed by disaster. About 60% of disasters requiring external assistance have been due to floods and winds. Famines and drought do not occur as frequently, but have more long lasting effects on land and population; most recently, famines and droughts have stemmed from armed conflicts. Civil conflicts have claimed the most victims: almost 3 times as many civilians as soldiers. Food recently has been used as a weapon of war. The use of landmines in civil conflicts has resulted in growing numbers of civilian disabled. Millions of children have been abandoned or separated from their families due to armed conflicts. Sexual violence as a weapon of war against civilians results in high rates of pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, as well as psychological traumas. The mental illness or stress disorders from armed conflicts or refugee and abandonment status have been neglected as outcomes. Natural and civil disasters engender malnutrition and disruptions of breast feeding. Early immunization may not be possible under crisis conditions.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Developing Countries
  • Disasters*
  • Family Health*
  • Female
  • Food Supply
  • Humans
  • Single Person
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Starvation / epidemiology
  • Violence
  • Warfare