The battle for gender equality is gaining ground in both the developed and developing world. But when countries are hit by crises, women and girls are worse affected than males, according to a new report.

The UN’s Global Humanitarian Overview 2019 says conflicts and natural disasters “exacerbate gender inequalities, particularly against women and girls”.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai pauses during an interview with Reuters at a local hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Saiyna Bashir - RC15384B3C10
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai pauses during an interview with Reuters at a local hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan
Image: REUTERS/Saiyna Bashir

Take school attendance, for example: Girls in conflict settings are almost two and a half times more likely to be out of school than boys. And by the time they reach secondary school, 90% of girls are out of school in conflict-affected countries when compared to those elsewhere.

The threat of school-related gender-based violence in conflict situations is one of the reasons more girls stay out of school. Examples include the “disproportionate targeting of girls’ schools” during the Afghanistan war and the 200 Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped in April 2014.

When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan in 2008, they said girls could no longer attend school. It prompted then 11-year-old Malala Yousafzai to speak out about girls’ rights to education - for which she was shot in the head on her school bus in 2012.

‘Tactic of war’

Sexual violence is another disturbing trend outlined in the UN report. At least one in five women refugees has experienced sexual violence and its effects, including trauma, stigma, poverty, poor health and unwanted pregnancy.

It says the real numbers are “likely to be much higher”, because the data is difficult to track and incidents underreported. From the evidence available, the report states that “sexual violence is being employed as a tactic of war”.

Nowhere is this more evident than among the 700,000 Rohingya refugees, who fled from Rakhine state, Myanmar, to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in 2017.

The UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, described a “frenzy of sexual violence” that women were subjected to by the Myanmar Armed Forces and local militias.

Rohingya refugee women hold placards as they take part in a protest at the Kutupalong refugee camp to mark the one-year anniversary of their exodus in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1FD0799CD0
Rohingya refugee protest, in August 2018, marking the one-year anniversary of their exodus.
Image: REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The Secretary General’s report on conflict-related sexual violence in March 2018, said: “The widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to their strategy, humiliating, terrorizing and collectively punishing the Rohingya community and serving as a calculated tool to force them to flee their homelands and prevent their return.”

It added that “women, including pregnant women… are seen as custodians and propagators of ethnic identity, as well as... young children, who represent the future of the group”.

By March 2018, some 2,756 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence had received support through humanitarian aid, but the UN reported 47% of settlement areas lacked basic clinical services.

It also identified a $9 million funding gap for “women-and child-friendly spaces” which would provide a lifeline for those survivors.

In May 2018, it was estimated that some 40,000 Rohingya women were pregnant, a “significant share” as a result of rape.

More than half of the Rohingya refugees are women
Image: UNHCR

Vulnerable to natural disasters

The GHO report also asserts that “natural disasters on average kill more women than men or kill women at a younger age than men”.

A 2007 study which looked at data from 141 countries between 1981 and 2002, found that “natural disasters lower the life expectancy of women more than that of men”.

In 2015, according to the latest figures from the World Bank, 736 million people were living in extreme poverty - living on less than $1.90 a day - and, as Oxfam points out, more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters.

An Oxfam report found that four times as many women than men died in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India after the 2004 tsunami, which killed more than 220,000 people in 12 countries and left 1.6 million homeless.

It said the reasons for this were largely because women in those countries often couldn’t swim or climb trees to escape - and because the tsunami hit on a Sunday morning, many women in Indonesia’s Aceh province were at home looking after children, while men were running errands which took them away from the seafront.

The UN’s report comes shortly before the World Economic Forum releases its 2018 Global Gender Gap Report. Of the 144 countries covered in the 2017 report, there have been some significant improvements especially in the areas of health and educational attainment. But the UN highlights how much work remains to be done to help ensure women's safety during humanitarian crises.