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Poverty Marginalisation and Vulnerability

This article describes the relationship between marginalisation and vulnerability in communities, discussing urban vulnerability.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
The poor and marginalised can often be more exposed to hazards, and their ability to effectively cope and recover can be compromised.
This does not mean that only poor people are vulnerable to hazards, as we have seen in the case of wildfires destroying expensive mansions sometimes resulting in the deaths of their owners in sought-after locations in California.
But life generally is a struggle for the poverty stricken, when confronted with a further hazard that can destroy their home and belongings and which can seriously impact on their livelihood and ability to survive. The impact of environmental and technological hazards cannot be seen in isolation from the social vulnerability of those affected.

Urban vulnerability

There are many examples of how marginalisation can increase the risk to individuals and communities and this is well demonstrated in rapid urbanisation. People moving to a city are not likely to own land in the city and often have to live where nobody else wants to live, in hazardous locations, and often in cramped and densely populated dwellings.
People will understandably want to live with others with whom they are familiar or share a common bond. This can result in sub-groups along ethnic, cultural or religious distinctions. While community ties and capacities can be strengthened it may also result in whole sub-groups being at risk.
A fragile location is often a common factor which may be subject to surface water or coastal flooding, landslip, and disease vectors, such as mosquitoes. In other cases the poor cannot afford safe, well-built dwellings and can be at further risk due to fire and structural damage or collapse.

The marginalised vulnerable

The marginalised often include the socially marginalised such as children, women, the elderly, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, refugees, recent immigrants, and due to factors such as caste, class, religion, sexuality, and ill health. The needs of marginalised people may not be taken into account in normal times due to their ‘invisibility’ and can be exacerbated further when a disaster strikes.
Lack of information can be a major barrier to inclusion and accessibility. Research by HelpAge International in Lebanon, South Sudan and Ukraine in 2015 found that more than two-thirds of older people felt they did not have enough information about the humanitarian assistance available to them (HelpAge International 2016). As practitioners we need to actively seek to understand who is marginalised and what the underlying causes are.


People with disabilities are often disproportionately affected by disaster. Where statistics have been collected they often indicate higher mortality among those with disabilities than the general population. While disability has become recognised as a particular factor to take into account in emergency planning and response, there is still much work to be done. There is a broad spectrum of disability which includes both physical and mental health disabilities. Old age is not a disability in itself but many older people may be infirm and have mobility challenges. Involving people with disabilities in emergency planning can help them to understand the risks, recommend measures to take and provide mutual support.
Referring to the Great Yarmouth case study, the series of flood evacuations highlighted the specific needs of people with disabilities. Through the engagement of Centre 81, a local charity providing specialised transport for wheelchair users and others with disabilities, their services were written into evacuation plans for the locality. The need to ensure sufficient care staff to accompany those evacuated from pick-up to temporary accommodation was further highlighted.
Watch the video in which Diana Staines, CEO of Centre 81, discusses her own views on the subject of vulnerability and how the support given by the centre helps develop resilience within the community.
Where discrimination against people with disabilities exists it is important to take steps to address the needs of those with disabilities through sensitive engagement, to understand the issues, followed by appropriate actions.

Gender considerations

Women and men are affected differently in a disaster and vary according to context. Gender inequalities exist under normal circumstances which can be exacerbated during a disaster. Unequal access to education, training and work often lead to a lack of economic and social security and greater vulnerability of girls and women in a crisis. At the same time women bear family responsibilities but often lack post-disaster decision-making opportunities and representation.
There are also gender issues for men which may put them at additional risk in a disaster due to their customary roles. However, power dynamics usually discriminate against women and it is vital to understand such dynamics in disaster management to ensure a more equitable response. Working through existing women’s groups can aid this process. Rather than reinforcing inequalities we need to use interventions as opportunities to enhance gender equality and women’s empowerment, and facilitate more progressive gender roles and relationships to emerge.

Children – opportunities and vulnerability

Global and environmental change and conflict is having a profound impact on the frequency and severity of disasters experienced by children. Children’s needs and circumstances in disasters are not always appreciated.
In the extreme sense, child trafficking, exploitation, abuse, recruitment to armed groups and psychological harm cannot be overlooked. Girls may be forced into prostitution to support themselves and their families.
However, the ‘normal’ experience of children at risk and in disasters is to be unrepresented and voiceless. It is clear that the vulnerability of children and youth in disasters should be fully assessed, understood and acted upon. In addition, it is increasingly recognised that educating the children on risk and preparedness can indirectly educate whole families and is an entry point for raising community awareness.

Further reading

Here are some further resources that you may find of interest:
GFDRR (ND) ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Disaster Recovery’ [online]. available from [19 August 2019]
FEMA (2013) ‘Preparing for Disaster for People with Disabilities and Other Special Needs’ [online]. available from [19 August 2019]
ADCAP (2015) ‘Minimum Standards for Age and Disability Inclusion in Humanitarian Action’ [online]. available from [19 August 2019]
UNICEF (2012) ‘Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and Abuse’ [online]. available from [19 August 2019]
Baxter, H. (2017) ‘When Angels Fall from the Sky: Helping Children and Young People Cope in the Aftermath of a Disaster’ [online]. available from [17 March 2020]


HelpAge International (2016) ‘Older Voices in Humanitarian Crises: Calling for Change’. London: HelpAge International
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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