Press Release

Commission on Status of Women

Forty-sixth Session

6th Meeting (PM)



Involving women in protecting the environment would help societies develop the sense of responsibility needed to maintain a good balance between humans and the earth’s resources, an environmental expert told the Commission on the Status of Women this afternoon, as it held the second of panel discussions addressing its two-themed issues for the current two-week session.

Idiatou Camara, Guinea’s National Environment Director, one of four environmental protection experts exchanging views with the Commission on the theme of the gender perspective in environmental management and disaster mitigation, said women needed to participate at the national level and get their countries to empower women in regions unable to afford protection activities.  They must encourage democratization and discourage the economic oppression that led to massive population movements degrading the environment.  They must mobilize to reverse the poverty which excluded the poor from protecting the environment because limited knowledge and technical ability prevented them from addressing problems. 

Another panellist, Marie Yolene Surena, Director, Civil Protection, Ministry of Interior of Haiti, said investing in women for roles in environmental risk management was not only beneficial, but profitable.  Managing environmental risk was part of the development process, while managing disasters now was a drain on development funds.  The priorities must be to develop human resources, change laws, address food security and slow population increases.

Salvano Briceno, Director, United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, said economic losses due to natural disasters had increased nearly ten-fold during the past four decades.  In some cases, as in Afghanistan now, persistent drought was amplifying man-made emergencies.  Numerous elements of a comprehensive and sustained policy for hazard awareness and disaster reduction should be looked at from a gender perspective.  Balanced and equal participation of men and women in formulating and implementing policies and programmes was essential.

Speaking about the "gendered terrain of disaster", author and educator Elaine Enarson said natural disasters were social processes deeply rooted in global political and economic forces, with inescapable local effects.  The gendered division of labour, maternal health, women's longevity, household and

economic structures put girls and women at special risk.  Strengthening their capacity to reduce and manage risk was not a secondary or divisive concern, but an essential first step in building more disaster-resilient communities.

Moderating the panel was the representative of the Republic of Korea.

Taking part in the exchange with the panel were the representatives of Benin, Fiji, Mongolia, Republic of Korea, Spain (on behalf of the European Union), Norway, China, Denmark, Cuba, Senegal, Indonesia, Israel, Guinea, Kenya, Netherlands, Australia, Turkey, United States, Thailand and Haiti.  The representative of the Commonwealth Secretariat also spoke.

Non-governmental organization representatives taking part in the exchange were the National Union of Moroccan Women, Armenian Assembly of America, and the Environmental and Natural Disasters Caucus of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women.

The Commission will meet again at 10 a.m., Thursday, 7 March, to continue considering the implications of reform for communications in the human rights area.


The Commission on the Status of Women met this afternoon to hold a panel discussion on the second of its two thematic issues for the session, the gender perspective in environmental management and in the mitigation of natural disasters.  For the discussion, the Commission has before it a report of the Secretary-General on thematic issues before the Commission (document E/CN.6/2002/9).  It also has statements submitted by non-governmental organizations having consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (documents E/CN.6/2002/NGO1-13).

(For further background on this and other reports, as well as on the Commission, please see Press Release WOM/1321 of 1 March.)

The afternoon panel will be composed of:  Salvano Briceno, Director, United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, based in Geneva.  A lawyer by training and a Venezuelan national, his broad experience with environmental issues includes a five-year assignment with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Jamaica and an eight-year assignment in Geneva with the secretariats of the Climate Change and Desertification Conventions.

Idiatou Camara, National Director of the Environment in Guinea.  With a broad-based background on environmental issues, including through participation in negotiations on international documents concerning biological diversity and climate change, her speciality is women’s perception of environmental degradation.

Elaine Enarson, writer, scholar and educator on women in disasters.  From the United States and based in Evergreen, Colorado, she is a founding member of the Gender and Disaster Network, a lead developer of a social vulnerability course for the Federal Emergency Management Agency of her country and a principal investigator on a vulnerability project in the Caribbean.

Marie Yolene Surena, Director, Civil Protection, Ministry of the Interior of Haiti.  Her background in the area of public health includes an appointment as Director of Planning and Evaluation within the Ministry of Public Health and Population.


SALVANO BRICENO, Director, United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, based in Geneva, said during the past four decades natural hazards such as earthquakes, droughts, floods and volcanic eruptions had caused severe environmental damage accompanied by loss of human life and livelihoods, as well as destruction of economic and social infrastructure.  Economic losses had increased nearly ten-fold during that period and, in some cases, natural disasters had amplified man-made emergencies.  That was exemplified by the ongoing drought and the effects of protracted conflict on the people and socio-economic situation in Afghanistan.  Women were often more adversely affected by natural disasters than men, he added.

He said that poverty reduction initiatives and the associated rise in reconstruction efforts had begun to tax international strategies for disaster reduction initiated by multilateral agencies and non-governmental organizations. Indeed, it had been projected that by the year 2050 the international community would spend some $300 billion annually, particularly if climate change and environmental degradation were not addressed immediately.  The promotion and implementation of a comprehensive and sustained policy for hazard awareness and disaster reduction had numerous elements and strategic components, many of which should be looked upon from a gender perspective.  Balanced and equal participation of men and women in formulating and implementing policies and programmes was essential.

While no nation or region was safe from the effects of natural disasters, he said, the lack of capacity to cope with natural hazards remained a major hurdle, primarily for developing countries.  The percentage of economic loss in relation to gross national product was far higher in developing nations than in developed countries.  Sadly, the emphasis on disaster response had often diverted attention and funds that would normally be targeted for development efforts.  If that trend were to continue, efforts at ensuring broad sustainable development could likely be overwhelmed.

He went on to highlight the dire effects of rampant deforestation and environmental degradation.  Non-sustainable overuse of resources and sharp increases in human water-related disasters, particularly in tropical and sub-tropical regions, were major problems at the beginning of the new millennium. Rapid urban expansion also contributed to increased vulnerability to natural disasters, as more and more populations were forced to go to environmentally unstable areas to seek out livelihoods.  The major challenge was to motivate vulnerable communities toward constant management of risk and reduction of vulnerability.  It was also of critical importance to examine the relationship between disaster risk reduction and globalization, in order to ensure that trade was not interrupted in the aftermath of natural disasters.

He left the Commission with some important questions.  How and by whom were decisions made during normal times about disaster response and reduction components?  What effect did a lack of gender balance in society have on a community’s vulnerability to natural disaster?

MARIE YOLENE SURENA, Director, Civil Protection, Ministry of the Interior of Haiti, said the present age of increasing natural disasters presented two simultaneous challenges.  One was to consider what could be done to mitigate environmental degradation.  The other was to consider ways in which to increase the capacity of people to withstand the problems in a sustainable manner.  In both regards, much more research and disaggregated data analysis was needed to more accurately target the woman’s role in environmental management and disaster mitigation.

To start with, she said, more in-depth study should be conducted specifically on the effects of environmental phenomena and disasters on women.   That would need to address large-scale problems in identifying such effects; for example the reality that populations dissociated in the wake of disasters, which made follow-up difficult.  Also, social gender imbalances were reflected in data about the representation of women and men in disaster situations; those needed to be addressed.  For example, data about disaster-related losses in rural areas showed that losses of cattle and land were more often documented for men than for women.  In the cities, women had lower paying jobs and were the first to be hit by a disaster.  Messages on recovering from the disaster tended to be aimed at men, who continued to be seen as primary breadwinners. 

Finally, she said, investing in women for roles in environmental risk management was a profitable direction.  Managing environmental risk was part of the development process, while managing disasters at present was a drain on development.  Priorities were to develop human resource, change laws, address food issues and slow population increase.  The goal was to build a participatory framework where responsibilities between actors were balanced.

ELAINE ENARSON, writer and educator from the United States, speaking about what she called the "gendered terrain of disaster", said that natural disasters were social processes deeply rooted in global political, economic and social forces.  But, they were also inescapably local events.  Disasters unfolded in worlds shaped by culture and class, race and ethnicity, age, physical abilities and other power relations –- including those based on gender.  The gendered division of labour, maternal health, women's longevity, household and economic structures, and the gender inequalities embodied in everyday life put girls and women at special risk.  Strengthening their capacity to reduce and manage risk was not a secondary or divisive concern, but an essential first step in the hard work ahead of building more disaster-resilient communities.

Learning from local women and documenting their efforts to reduce and manage risk was one key to prevention, she said.  Four women's groups in the Dominican Republic and Saint Lucia were winding up the first of a two-year project to map risk in their communities, including the daily disasters that shaped low-income women's lives and the hurricanes, landslides, and fires to which they were exposed.  On environmental hazard mitigation, in Bangladesh, women char-dwellers increased food security through homestead gardening and food processing and storage.  In India, sharing new techniques for harvesting rainwater with household containers and community wells and ponds had proved invaluable when an earthquake struck Gujarat, India last year. 

With respect to emergency planning and preparedness, she recalled that women on El Niño task forces in Hawaii developed public education and awareness programmes, which carried information from village to village, resulting in conservation programmes and public health measures that mitigated the damage from the El Niño drought.  In response to Hurricane Mitch in Honduras, the coordinator of a sustainable development network mobilized international resources by using Internet list servers and e-mail.  She recommended, among others, women be allowed to take part in formulating global agreements.  Perhaps the monitoring mechanism for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women could help make disaster planning more responsive to concerns about women's human rights violations in natural disasters, including an increased risk of sexual and domestic violence.  Also, the issue of women's vulnerability to the effects of natural disasters could be on the agenda of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

IDIATOU CAMARA, National Director of the Environment in Guinea, said the environment was a great resource to all people.  All generations, past, present and future, had a responsibility to keep a good balance between humans and the environment and, at long last, humanity was beginning to realize that the balance was off for a number of reasons.  One was the undue pressure that was being put on the environment and its natural resources.  Another was the incidence of large population movements in migration.  Finally, the spread of industrialization to poorer parts of the world was leading to serious environmental degradation.

Degradation of resources, destruction of the ozone layer, destruction of biological diversity and desertification were just a few of the great environmental disasters facing humanity today, she said.  She reviewed the steps being taken to reverse those trends, such as the recommendations contained in the Stockholm Convention on organic pollutants.  Poverty limited the knowledge and technical ability to address problems.  Poverty also forced people to place stress on resources that couldn’t be renewed.

She said women had a greater awareness than men of the need to protect the environment for all humans.  Motivating them to take part in protecting the environment and managing disasters would harness their enthusiasm for the effort.  They would help develop the sense of responsibility all humans needed to maintain a good balance between humans and the earth’s resources.  Women needed to participate at the national level.  They needed to get their countries to empower women to protect the environment in regions that could not afford such activities, such as in Africa.  All women must use their influence to encourage democratization and discourage the economic oppression that led to massive population movements.  Finally, women must mobilize to reverse the poverty that excluded the poor from participating in protecting the environment.        

Comments and Questions

Opening the first round of questions, the representative of Benin noted that much of the cooking was done with firewood in his country and wondered if the panel could suggest more environmentally sound alternatives.  The representatives of Mongolia, Republic of Korea, Norway, Fiji, Spain (on behalf of the European Union), and the National Union of Moroccan Women posed questions relating to, among others:  the effects of natural disasters on children and women; the ways that women could be integrated into disaster reduction strategies; the need for a people-centred approach to resource management and disaster reduction issues; and the need to enhance environmental research capacities.

Responding, Mr. BRICENO said that there were initiatives within the United Nations aimed at coordinating disaster relief and resource management efforts.  He added that it was critical for all to work to ensure gender balance and to foster a culture of prevention, particularly within education systems where each day all the wrong values about the environment and natural resources were being instilled in children.

Ms. SURENA said it was important to remember that in developing countries it was difficult to require extremely poor women to expend time and energy protecting the environment, particularly when the consequences affected their immediate survival.  On the issue of effective strategies that would allow women to participate more actively, she added that role of each gender should be enhanced so that women could more actively participate in decision-making about environmental issues.

Ms. ENARSON said the most difficult challenge was to develop an integrated approach to environmental issues.  Still, there was a need to listen to the concerns of women -- and perhaps in that way to find a means to address serious environmental problems in a comprehensive manner.  On the issue of non-governmental organization involvement, she suggested that emergency relief agencies and civil society actors be required to mainstream gender aspects in their work.  She added that non-governmental organizations were allies and not adversaries in the disaster reduction and relief effort.  She also supported the notion of stepping up research efforts and to address root causes of environmental issues and vulnerability to natural disasters.

Ms. CAMARA said it had been recognized that the major source of energy in Africa, wood and coal, lead to deforestation, as well as other forms of environmental degradation.  In her country, alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind energy, were being examined.  On the issue of the impact of natural disasters on the status of women, she said it was true that more research needed to be done.  Again highlighting the situation in her homeland, she said that studies had shown that women believed that natural resources were God-given and could be used indiscriminately.  Instituting sensitivity training was one way to at least raise women’s awareness to such issues.

Further questions were posed by the representatives of China, Denmark, Cuba, Senegal, Indonesia, Israel, and the Armenian Assembly of America.  Questions concerned pollution of the environment with inorganic pollutants, environmental versus fiscal priorities, the imbalance of women’s responsibility with regard to protecting the environment for children, and when morality should override commercial interests.

Mr. BRICENO commended the UNEP New York Office as an excellent source of information on the programmes, strategies and instruments that were in effect for protecting the environment.  He said, however, that unfortunately, education was the important factor.  Also, a change in cultural values was needed to overturn the current concern with short-term gains and nurture a concern for long-term interests.  In terms of getting governments to put morality to the fore of their concerns, he recommended lobbying for legislative change to curb damaging practices.  The production of arms was encouraged by war and the drug trade was encouraged when consumption was not addressed in the industrialized countries, he said.  

Ms. SURENA said the key to achieving change was to get people to “practice what we preach”.  That meant agitating through financing and legislation for society to accord greater importance to activities capable of influencing values.  Schooling and other venues that could broaden the inclusion of women in decision-making were two arenas for such activity.  Women must be encouraged to get involved and be effective decision-makers.  While commercial interests weren’t necessarily bad, a culture of morality needed to be given more importance than it had at present.

Ms. ENARSON noted that best practices should be documented, because people had always lived with environmental disasters, such as floods, and there should be continuity between our present perceptions and the past.  “We’ve forgotten but indigenous people remember”, she said.  Also, the root causes of environmental disasters must be addressed, by studying aggregated data.  The Convention on the Elimination of All Kinds of Discrimination against Women was the best document for those kinds of studies.  States should be involved in the studies although they should primarily be carried out by women at the grass-roots level, who lived with disasters.  That would entail leadership training for women.

How do we ensure that human life is valued over economic gain? she asked.  The most promising trend was that commercial interests lately were finding that environmental disasters were overly costly.  While her country specialized in

“paving over paradise to make another parking lot”, it too, along with its companies, recognized the economic impact of such an attitude.  They were beginning to address the cost by curing the disease.

Ms. CAMARA said preparation for disasters was a key in environmental management.  For example, simulation tests had been carried out in her country, in cooperation with the United States and a programme had begun to prepare women to understand the effects of disasters and carrying out remedies.  In one case, that had enabled women to recover quickly after a flood, by replacing gardens.  Capacity-building, technology transfer, forest management and providing seedbed equipment were just some elements of such preparedness.   

During the final round of questions, representative of Guinea shared experiences with efforts to maintain the sustainability of natural resources, particularly the country’s forests.  The representatives of Kenya, the Netherlands, Australia, United States, Haiti, Turkey, Thailand, as well as the NGO Committee on the Status of Women and the Commonwealth Secretariat, also shared their experiences on a variety of disaster management concerns, including efforts to ensure the full participation of women in disaster relief efforts, public-private partnerships, non-governmental organization participation, climate change and water management, and violence against women in times of disaster.

Responding to questions, Mr. BRICENO said clearly there was a need to strengthen work at the community level in order to put pressure on governments to address environmental concerns.  He insisted that education was the key to identifying the issues that had thus far hindered gender mainstreaming on resource management and disaster reduction issues.  He agreed that, above all, achieving a culture of prevention required the empowerment of women and the education of men.

Ms. SURENA said the role of women in risk management and disaster prevention had been highlighted throughout the discussion, but at the same time it was important to ensure that women were not overburdened.  All must work to ensure that resource management initiatives were shared and that the role of women was enhanced in a fair and equitable manner.  She added that it was time to go from theory to practice -- it was time to invest in women in order to ensure their broader participation in all aspects of life.

Ms. Enarson agreed that women should not be expected to rise to the occasion again and again and take on more duties on top of their other responsibilities.  To that end, it was important to advocate the assistance and participation of non-governmental organizations and civil society actors.  She added that sustainability of the world’s water supply was the key environmental issue heading into the new century.  She also agreed that codes of conduct of public-private partnership should mandate that women’s rights be protected.  Finally, she said there was a need to ensure a more disaster-resilient planet by making the world safer, more sustainable and more gender balanced.

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