United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women

E-forum on gender equality, environmental management and natural disaster mitigation

"Victims? Heroines? Gender myths and realities in disasters"
1st week summary

This week’s topic generated considerable interest resulting in substantive contributions from 22 women and men, many writing from very different cultures and organizations.

Gender myths were seen to undermine the recognition of women and men’s interdependence, women’s distinct disaster experiences, and the need for women and men to work together to reduce risk in hazardous environments. Agreeing that gender myths (e.g. women as passive victims) are not only cross-cultural and deeply embedded in social life but have very real effects, some cautioned against constructing an equally false notion of women as “heroines” or a blindly “celebratory approach”:

My research on Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua suggests that while many women have developed sophisticated survival strategies which enable them to cope within a situation of disadvantage, I also have evidence of a lack of solidarity amongst reconstruction project beneficiaries and of aid dependency which will not readily be replaced by self-reliance.

Julie Cupples
Department of Geography
University of Canterbury
Christchurch, New Zealand

Contributors urge a more nuanced use of language (including the terms “women” and “gender”), and specifically reject the term “survivor as it implies “helplessness, and this is what needs to be fought against.” They emphasize the complexity and diversity of both women and men, noting that constructing all women as “victims” fosters gender-biased policies and approaches that reproduce, rather than challenge, women’s vulnerability. This also falsely dichotomizes women (“victim” or “heroine”?) and women and men as social groups. It was suggested also that constructing all women as real or potential mothers distorts the real situation of many and also fosters neglect of those hazards posing specific threats to men’s reproductive health.

Paradoxically, in accounts from contributors in countries as diverse as Bangladesh and the United States, women’s everyday realities were understood both to reinforce the image of women as dependent, passive victim and to challenge it. Language barriers leading to social isolation were noted, as were cultural barriers in highly sex-segregated societies restricting women’s ability to evacuate to safety or otherwise move about freely. Rather than acting on the basis of stereotypes, commentators pointed out the need to analyze gender power and the root causes of vulnerability:

Women are made victims as a result of obvious gender discrimination. Their being victims extend to disaster situation for the very same reason of the gender discrimination that they face in all spheres of life and from birth. They are invisible heroines as their potential [is] not perceived by the society, including women themselves. . . We all must on one hand, try to understand the meaning of victims first and its root causes, [and] on the other hand, we must work towards building the confidence of women (including ourselves).

Mahjabeen Chowdhury
Intermediate Technology Group

Women are key to maintaining the family unit, keeping ties with community structures, obtaining access to assistance and entitlements, and meeting basic family needs. However, women frequently find themselves stateless and dependent on others. In many societies, women do not have the same socio-economic standing as men. They have considerable less decision-making power and control over their own or their children’s lives. Women are very often poor, vulnerable and lacking in political influence due to inequality, marginalization and disempowerment.

Angus Graham
International Consultant
Republic of South Africa

Simply solving the problems of the day equips women around the world with vitally needed coping skills and social networks.

The same conditions that may put women at risk in their everyday lives---lower pay for equal work, lower incomes, less political power and fewer positions of authority, less access to information about environmental risks or hazards, limited access to resources for post-disaster recovery and pre-disaster mitigation----have helped build coping mechanisms and adaptive strategies into their lives, as well. Women who earn less may learn to carefully budget resources, especially if they have families. We all can think of women who lost husbands through death and divorce, and successfully raised children and become financially independent. I know women who have suffered from severe and terminal diseases, who maintained a positive attitude, fought the disease longer than doctors thought possible, held their families together and strengthened their loved ones at the same time. All of these everyday acts of heroism are the types of actions and skills necessary in coping with and reducing impacts from disasters.

Cheryl L. Anderson
University of Hawaii

Many noted that women tend to be forward-looking, oriented to long-lasting recovery. Their domestic responsibilities situate them to act proactively to reduce risks and protect the most vulnerable. Especially in female-headed households, where men may have migrated to find waged work or be absent for other reasons, women increasingly step naturally from these family-based roles into emergency preparedness and response activities. In addition to caring for their families, observers see women acting proactively throughout the disaster cycle, as this account from Nicaragua suggests:

After the storm subsided, international aid began entering the area near her village. She saw that the village leader, a man who lost his farm, was more concerned about his own than other village members. . .So she traveled to the mayor’s office, where she had never been before. She visited the Peace Corps volunteer in town, whom she did not know. Through her dedication, persistence, and patience, she had seven houses built and legally put in the wife/mother’s name. She insisted that latrines be built for all families. She rallied 10,000 trees to be planted on the deforested hills that surrounded her village. She learned about water diversion tactics, and found an engineer to teach her village to build gavion-walled channels.

Sarah Henshaw
World Food Program

Taken as a whole, those who joined this week’s discussion identified a great range of factors sustaining gender myths and suggested many strategies for debunking these images and promoting gender equality. In sum:

1) The command-and-control approach to disasters assumes a “victim” in need of rescue. It must be modified or replaced with a more flexible approach:

Is heroism characteristic of a disaster situation? People cope in their everyday lives, fight with difficulties, make progress and improve. . . It seems to me that heroism in disaster situations is somehow connected with seeing people as victims. Therefore, any effort of people to cope with disaster is easily presented as extraordinary, therefore as heroic. This is also not [unrelated to the fact that most] emergency response policy [is] based on a military model (“command, control, communication”). According to this model, external well-structured forces save the victims of disaster. No need to say that if response is based on this model, women very rarely participate as emergency managers. Yet, there is enough evidence now that this is not the most efficient response model and we need to explore more flexible ways of response. Gender issues should be introduced not only in respect to people suffering from the disaster, but also in respect to emergency response policies.

Miranda Dandoulaki
European Centre on Prevention and
Forecasting of Earthquakes

2) Occupational segregation concentrates men around the world in socially visible emergency planning and response roles, while contributors agreed that women’s efforts to mitigate hazards and cope with disasters generally takes place behind the scenes. An educator suggests that the new generation of women studying emergency management and moving into disaster agencies “will transform emergency management, including gender myths.” This implies the need to support the entry of more women into nontraditional roles in order to, among other results, challenge images of women as passive victims.

3) The values, practices, and knowledge base of journalists and other communicators were noted to generally produce distorted images of women and men in disasters, suggesting the great need for educational work with media and alternative approaches. Though few specific strategies emerged, many suggested that the powerful role of the media in propagating gender myths warrants more attention.

4) The programmatic responses of agencies, governments, and NGOs also very often reflect, and tend to reinforce, myths rather than realities. Women become “victims” when gender myths, not accurate knowledge about local living conditions and culturally-specific gender relations, guide the policies and programs of disaster organizations. Several contributors spoke to the need for “organizational frameworks” for working equitably with women at the grassroots and community levels, and targeting women as key risk reducers. This both increases safety and challenges victimization mythology.

In Armenia, Armine Mikayelyan of the NGO Women for Development described an educational program targeting women as household and community educators about how to reduce seismic risk. Working with media representatives and utilizing print, radio and television, they sought to increase women’s knowledge and also project a new image of women—“not only silently carrying the heavy results of the disaster, but also. . . ready to provide her knowledge and ability for disaster mitigation.”

An American emergency manager writes that programs need to build on women’s skills as family planners and organizers and, speaking of cultural diversity in the US, be culturally inclusive:

The challenge is in providing opportunities for those with language barriers to celebrate their culture and also embrace their own communities. Preparedness programs will take on a new light when we reach the citizens in a community that are otherwise isolated. We can make a difference in people’s lives when we empower women of other cultures with the knowledge to mitigate, respond and recover from a disaster.

Cathy Diehl
Emergency Management Coordinator
Ogden, Utah

5) Lack of knowledge about how women experience disasters allows stereotypes to flourish. As one contributor observed, if women’s “creativities and strengths are not often discussed and learned because [they are] embedded in their daily lives,” there is a need to “learn from them” about how both vulnerability and capacity are grounded in daily life. A new approach is needed in disaster research to help challenge gender myths:

So, it seems to me that we are now faced with the task of understanding the factors influencing the choice of coping. . . To start we have to ask women. . . be with them and share their phenomenological world. . . So, as stressed by others, we definitely need to develop an insider’s perspective rather than relying on our and others' observations and interpretations. The challenge is to find ways to empower women based on their own views.

Nuray Karanci
Professor of Clinical Psychology
Middle East Technical University
Ankara, Turkey

Moving beyond gender myths is critical for all these reasons. Further understanding of what women actually do in the face of hazards and disasters—our topic in subsequent weeks—can only help. As ever, “the question is how”—that is, how to construct and utilize accurate and useful knowledge that can help mitigate hazards and increase the resilience of both women and men in disasters.

Your additional thoughts on the topic are still welcome—as are your ideas for revision or additions to this summary. I especially thank those of you whose comments I have quoted (among the many wonderful statements posted!) and urge you to help me correct any errors of interpretation or distortions arising from editing.

Elaine Enarson

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Division for the Advancement of Women -- DAW

Website: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
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