On November 8, 2013, Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons on record with sustained winds up to 195 mph, made landfall in the eastern and central Philippines. For three days, I waited anxiously to hear from my family in one of the affected areas. After sending out numerous e-mails and making frantic phone calls to friends and other family members, I learned that my immediate family safely evacuated to a nearby city. Finally, I received an e-mail from my sister detailing how she made the decision to evacuate my elderly parents to an inn in a nearby city. As she explained, the inn was chosen because it was near a hospital and she was concerned about my parents’ medical conditions and overall health. She was also concerned about strong winds and heavy floods as our town is situated along a major river; consequently, she had my parents move out of the house a day before the typhoon made landfall on the island. Super Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) left more than 5,000 people dead and displaced around four million people in the Philippines. It is unclear how many of those who perished and were injured were women and children. In my hometown of approximately 32,000 people, one of the two reported casualties was a woman.[i] According to the municipal government’s disaster report, there were 3,209 houses that were totally damaged, and 2,532 houses that were partially damaged.[ii]
Inspired by Barbara Molony’s blog, I originally planned on writing about another topic related to transnational studies in East Asia. However, the recent catastrophe in the Philippines made me reflect on women and disasters in Asia, particularly on how the mass media and social media employed images of women as icons of disaster. The situation in the Philippines also made me think of the actual role that women play in emergency management and postdisaster recovery. My sister’s account points to the potential significance of women in emergency management. Furthermore, reports from the mass media and social media suggest that women’s movements could play an important role in postdisaster relief efforts. My cursory survey of the literature on disasters in Asia shows that scholars have paid little attention to these topics.
As I read the news reports from local and foreign media and watch news coverage and interviews with typhoon survivors, I notice that they tend to use images of women and children. In addition, the interviews were mostly with women. Women, especially mothers, figure prominently in narratives of sorrow and despair, and of hope and perseverance. “In the Philippines, world scrambles to deliver ‘the basics’ as one mother despairs,” wrote Joe Sterling for CNN.[iii] In the Anderson Cooper 360 show, the host, who visited the city of Tacloban in the eastern Philippines, paid tribute to the resilience of the Filipino people: “…Imagine the strength it takes for a mother to search alone for her missing kids, the strength to sleep on the street near the body of your child…..”[iv] In another news report, Philippine Air Force Capt. Antonio Tamayo happily announces Emily Sagalis’s successful delivery of a baby girl named Bea Joy. “The baby came out and cried right away. There wasn’t any problem. And there was no bleeding. So it was a perfect delivery in a very imperfect environment,” Tamayo explained.[v] Photographs, too, are powerful vehicles for conveying messages of vulnerability, despair, and need as well as hope, support and immediate action on the ground. There were photographs of women and children standing at the center of the debris of what used to be their home, a mother watching the dead body of her child stretched out on a church pew, and Filipino and U.S. male soldiers helping an elderly woman disembark a C-130 aircraft.[vi] In these stories and images, women served as “icons of disaster” as well as symbols of strength and resilience. Similarly, in Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley’s study of cultural responses to the drought-famine that killed 10 million people in north China in the 1870s, women, especially famished women sold into prostitution, were among the most common “icons of starvation.”[vii] Although Super Typhoon Haiyan affected women and men, girls and boys, young and old, these news reports and images, for the most part, reinforce the view of women, the elderly, and children as the most vulnerable groups (and of men as heroes and first responders) during times of disaster.[viii] Drawing on their study of natural disasters from 1981 to 2002, Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plumpert explained that “[i]t is the socially constructed gender-specific vulnerability of females built into everyday socioeconomic patterns that lead to the relatively higher female disaster mortality rate compared to men.”[ix]
Although women figured prominently in disaster stories that highlight the theme of vulnerability, studies also show that some women were more vulnerable than others. Alluding to the differential impact of famine among Chinese women in the 1870s, Edgerton-Tarpley posited that unlike elderly mothers who have low market value during the famine, young women who allowed their families to sell them or who sold themselves in exchange for food sometimes managed to survive the famine.[x] During Hurricane Katrina in the United States, “most of the victims trapped in New Orleans were Afro-American women with their children, the poorest demographic group in that part of the country.”[xi] Socioeconomic status, Neumayer and Plumpert explained, is one of the factors that determine a person’s vulnerability to disaster: “When the socioeconomic status of women is low, more women than men die.”[xii] When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines a few weeks ago, my sister was thankful that she had a job and was able to move the family to a nearby inn. In previous typhoons and floods, they fled to a relative’s home that was built on higher ground. Other residents sought refuge in their relatives’ homes in the higher part of the town or they evacuated to nearby schools, parts of which were flooded or destroyed with roofs that were blown away by the typhoon.
More importantly, women devised ways to deal with emergency situations and mitigate the impact of the disaster.[xiii] As a working woman, my sister was able to make a timely decision for the whole family. She bought a small transistor radio, a flashlight, candles, and canned food two days before Typhoon Haiyan hit our province. She moved my parents out of the house before the government authorities enforced preventive evacuation.[xiv] Her case demonstrates women’s emergency management skills, a relatively neglected aspect of disaster studies in Asia. Another related theme that is worth exploring is women’s coping mechanisms during and after disasters. In their book titled Disaster and Gender: Impact of Super Cyclone on Life and Livelihood of Women, Mamata Swain, Mrutyunjay Swain, and Ranju Hasini Sahoo examine the coping responses of women in Orissa in eastern India after the 1999 Super Cyclone.[xv]
Equally important is the role that women’s organizations and networks play in postdisaster relief efforts. In the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan, the Filipino Women’s Council (FWC) raised funds especially for women and children in the affected areas.[xvi] Established in Rome in 1991, the FWC aims to provide for the needs of Filipino women in Italy, such as those related to marital conflict and sexual abuse.[xvii] Considered the largest and most influential association of Filipino women in Italy, the FWC is but one example of a women-driven movement for women. In addition, newly-established all-women grassroots organizations, like the Bundles of Joy and Letters of Hope, provide on-the-ground aid that includes food, water, clothing, vitamins, and flashlights as well as handwritten messages of solidarity sent from other countries. The Bundles of Joy was started by three young women activists (two are based in the Philippines and one in the U.S.) and supported by an all-women international volunteers from around the world.[xviii] As I read about the relief initiatives for the Philippines, I wonder, during the famine in China in the 1870s, were there women’s groups (e.g., Anglo-American women missionaries) that worked together to raise funds for the survivors? Edgerton-Tarpley noted that there were missionaries and foreign relief workers who visited famine areas in north China, but it is unclear if women were involved in these relief efforts.[xix] What about the survivors of what J. Charles Schenching described as “an urban catastrophe surpassed in scope only by the devastation wrought by aerial bombing during the Second World War” – the Great Kantô earthquake in Japan in 1923 that claimed somewhere between 100,000 and 140,000 lives?[xx]
There is a growing body of work on women and representations of disaster and on the gendered impact of disaster, especially the 1999 Super Cyclone in South Asia[xxi] but gender seems to be understudied in relation to other disasters in Asia. Sonya Ryang noted that scholars have studied the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo and the massacre of thousands of Koreans in Japan within the context of colonial racism.[xxii] Other works consider the fractured politics of reconstructing Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake.[xxiii] We know so little about women and disasters in, for example, late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Asia. Following Glenda Sluga’s call for the incorporation of women into international history, I would like to say that we would do well to consider women and gender in the history of disasters in Asia, exploring what Elaine Enarson calls “the gendered terrain of disaster”[xxiv] and the role that women’s networks played during and in the aftermath of the disaster.
Febe Pamonag, Department of History, Western Illinois University
[i] Natashya Gutierrez, “Iloilo works towards recovery after Yolanda,” http://www.rappler.com/nation/43299-iloilo-recovery-typhoon-yolanda, Posted on Nov. 9, 2013, accessed Nov. 25, 2013.
[ii] Municipality of San Enrique Disaster Report, https://www.facebook.com/update_security_info.php?wizard=1#!/municipalityofsanenriqueiloilo accessed Nov. 25, 2013.
[iii] Joe Sterling, “In Philippines, world scrambles to deliver as one mother despairs,” http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/17/world/asia/philippines-typhoon-haiyan/ accessed Nov. 27, 2013.
[iv] Anderson Cooper, “Reporter’s Notebook about the victims of typhoon Haiyan in Philippines,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-WW6lt9JD0 accessed Nov. 24, 2013.
[v] AC 360 Later, aired Nov. 12, 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MishN3gHoHE accessed Nov. 26, 2013.
[vi] Ibid.; Agence France-Presse, “More US aircraft bound for storm-hit Philippines,” http://globalnation.inquirer.net/90841/more-us-aircraft-bound-for-storm-hit-philippines accessed Nov. 24, 2013. Also see photos in “The Philippines: One Week After Typhoon Haiyan,” The Atlantic, Nov. 14, 2013 http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2013/11/the-philippines-one-week-after-typhoon-haiyan/100628/ accessed Nov. 27, 2013.
[vii] Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China (University of California Press, 2008), 159. Edgerton-Tarpley also cited Margaret Kelleher’s work on the Great Irish Famine and the twentieth- century Bengali famine that demonstrates how images of women are used as “bearers of meaning” because they have great power to move the reader or spectator. Edgerton-Tarpley, 161-62.
[viii] Although these reports and images dovetail with the view of men as the “stronger sex” who are expected to take heroic actions, studies also show that in some cases, this belief has put men in great risk in disaster situations. For example, “there were more immediate deaths among men when hurricane Mitch struck Central America, not only because they were engaged in open-air activities, but because they took fewer precautions when facing risks.” “Disaster and Gender Statistics,” International Union for Conservation of Nature, http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CDcQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fcmsdata.iucn.org%2Fdownloads%2Fdisaster_and_gender_statistics.pdf&ei=kO6WUoGeHM6EkQfH44GoAw&usg=AFQjCNHEjgH4ZC77ySm1D4M-YqRwne4IHw&sig2=dzKA5b9WPYVgiT4EgiW-jA&bvm=bv.57155469,d.cGU accessed Nov. 27, 2013.
[ix] Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plumpert, “The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters: The Impact of Catastrophic Events on the Gender Gap in Life Expectancy, 1981-2002,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 97, no. 3 (Sept. 2007): 551.
[x] Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron, 188.
[xi] “Disaster and Gender Statistics,” International Union for Conservation of Nature.
[xii] Neumayer and Plumpert, “The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters,” 552.
[xiii] Similarly in the case of Hurricane Katrina, Enarson pointed out that “the camera lens for the most part captured the familiar gender line (dependent women, heroic men) though some photographers showed some women organizing collective care and young men keeping the peace in the Superdome of New Orleans.” Elaine Enarson, Women Confronting Natural Disaster: From Vulnerability to Resilience (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012), 10.
[xiv] On preventive evacuation in Iloilo, see Voltaire Tupaz, “Test of resilience: State of calamity in 4 Iloilo towns,” posted on Nov. 8, 2013, http://www.rappler.com/nation/43232-calamity-iloilo-towns accessed Nov. 26, 2013.
[xv] Mamata Swain, Mrutyunjay Swain and Ranju Hasini Sahoo, Disaster and Gender: Impact of Super Cyclone on Life and Livelihood of Women (New Delhi: Serials Publications, 2006).
[xvi] “Emergency Philippines: Filipino Women’s Council and Defence for Children-Italy,” http://www.filipinowomenscouncil.org/ accessed Nov. 27, 2013.
[xvii] On Filipino Women’s Council, see Wendy Pojmann, Immigrant Women and Feminism in Italy (Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006), 89-90.
[xviii] Kristina Rodulfo, “Young Women Activists Band Together To Fight Typhoon Haiyan with ‘Bundles of Joy,’” Elle, Nov. 18, 2013, http://www.elle.com/news/culture/typhoon-haiyan-relief-bundles-of-joy?src=spr_TWITTER&spr_id=1448_30916907&6761394=1 accessed Nov. 25, 2013. On Bundles of Joy, also see http://www.bundlesofjoyph.org/the-people.html
[xix] Edgerton-Tarpley, Tears from Iron, 182.
[xx] J. Charles Schencking, “Catastrophe, Opportunism, Contestation: The Fractured Politics of Reconstructing Tokyo following the Great Kantô Earthquake of 1923,” Modern Asian Studies 40, no. 4 (2006): 833.
[xxi] On the gendered impact of the 1999 super cyclone, see Mamata Swain, Mrutyunjay Swain and Ranju Hasini Sahoo, Disaster and Gender: Impact of Super Cyclone on Life and Livelihood of Women (New Delhi: Serials Publications, 2006). On gender and disaster management, see Manjari Mehta, Gender Matters: Lessons for Disaster Risk Reduction in South Asia (Kathmandu: International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, 2007).
[xxii] Sonia Ryang, “The Great Kantô Earthquake and the Massacre of Koreans in 1923: Notes on Japan’s Modern National Sovereignty, “Anthropological Quarterly 76, no. 4 (Autumn 2003): 737.
[xxiii] J. Charles Schencking, “Catastrophe, Opportunism, Contestation.” Also see Schencking, The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).
[xxiv] Enarson, Women Confronting Natural Disaster, 1-2. On gender and the distribution of risk, see “Disaster and Gender Statistics,” International Union for Conservation of Nature.