Keep Nepal's women and girls in mind
© Getty Images

As humanitarian assistance pours into Nepal in the wake of a terrible earthquake, thousands of peoples' lives will continue to be lost. Natural disasters create chaos affecting everyone. But what we know from years of research is that women and girls will be disproportionately affected by the tragedy. As far back as 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for more research on gender differences in the vulnerability and the impact of natural disasters on women. At that time, the WHO reported that globally, approximately 2 billion people were affected by natural disasters in the 1990s. By 2005, the Global Fund for Women said that the fact that women are disproportionately affected by disasters is "indisputable," and that the social breakdown that accompanies disasters makes women vulnerable to sexual abuse, including rape and domestic violence.

Now add climate change and food insecurity into an already toxic mix and you have even more women and girls at risk. Women in Nepal have faced difficulties before this recent earthquake. Last year, UNICEF reported that 13,000 women and children from Nepal were victims of human trafficking to other countries. Women and girls have faced numerous social, economic and political barriers to equality and have faced physical and psychological abuse.

ADVERTISEMENT

An earthquake leaves women and girls out in the open, unprotected and vulnerable. UNICEF estimates that nearly 1 million children are in areas affected by the earthquake and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Many of those will be young girls whose lives will never be the same.

What we know about natural disasters, in general, is that often the hardest hit are the world's poor who are most dependent on food and natural resources for their livelihood and that women are often providers of food and family decision-makers, but not empowered to use their capabilities to the fullest. The Food and Agriculture Organization stated this year that if we can unlock the full potential of women, we can feed 100 million to 150 million more people. When an earthquake hits, food and water become lifesaving goods. We need the talents of women around the world — half the sky in population — to help.

Every life is worth saving in Nepal. We must search and find each human being under the rubble and treat all the wounded and those who lives are forever changed. But keep an eye on the women and girls, in particular. Hear their cries. Time is of the essence.

Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. She is based at George Washington University in the School of Media and Public Affairs.