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”:
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:
Simply solving the problems of the day equips women around the world with vitally needed coping skills and social networks.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
Division for the Advancement of Women -- DAW
Department of Economic and Social Affairs