United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women

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

"How do women and men cope with the immediate and long-term challenges of natural disasters?"
3rd week summary

Again this week, our discussion elicited ideas from around the world (Argentina, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Armenia, Turkey, and the US) and from community organizers, scientists, emergency management professionals, researchers, development workers and government representatives-vastly complicating the business of drawing conclusions!

Broad agreement was expressed that gender inequality is a root cause of social vulnerability to disasters. Interacting with a host of other social structures and shaped by cultural and physical environments, gender relations structure people's ability to anticipate, prepare for, survive, cope with, and recovery from disasters, whether the insidious losses of drought or cataclysmic earth movements.

Gendered vulnerability to the impacts of disasters begins with sheer survival, it was noted, especially among the very old and women with extensive caregiving responsibilities. Family and work roles are key issues:

[T]he vulnerability of women is much greater because of their subordinate position in the family arising out of patriarchy and traditionally embedded cultural values. This is reflected in unequal work burden due to productive as well as reproductive responsibility, lack of control over the means of production, restricted mobility, limited facilities for education and lack of employment, inequalities in food intake relative to men, etc.

Madhavi Ariyabandu, Programme Manager-Disaster Mitigation, ITDG-South Asia

Sliding lands at the edges of mountains and hills because of the increasing rates of urbanization which is not properly planned by the governments [leads] to more women and men homeless. Men usually leave behind the mother-headed family to seek a job in the flourishing areas and leave the mother to carry the burden of the family alone, especially [in] those critical areas usually occupied by poor families.

Samia Galal Saad, Advisor to the Minister of State for Environmental Affairs, Cairo

Just as women vary in the extent and nature of their vulnerability to disaster impacts, they have "many different interests and therefore also many different coping strategies," as Lene Poulsen (UNDP - New York) stated. Women around the world are "de facto crisis managers" whose local coping strategies are important for emergency practitioners to understand and support. Gender analysis is needed, particularly with respect to the gendered division of labor and to psychosocial patterns, which in some contexts may limit women's responses to disaster.

In the smallest islands of Micronesia, virtually inaccessible except by cargo ship, society functions with very clear gender roles. Men are generally responsible for things related to the ocean and women are responsible for land-based (and nearshore reef-based) activities. These everyday responsibilities translate easily into response activities of an oncoming hazard, such as a typhoon, where the men secure the structures, canoes, and objects needed for fishing, etc. and the women gather plant cuttings, prop banana trees, and gather food & water & families in a designated shelter where everyone awaits the storm. Afterwards, men rebuild structures and women and children gather the salvageable palms and food, women weave thatch, and replant the gardens.

Cheryl Anderson, Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii

My personal experience of natural disasters is linked to the droughts in Mali and small floods in the internal delta of the Niger, as well as the earthquake in the Naples area... I witnessed each time that women immediately set about satisfying primordial needs such as eating and drinking, finding proper clothing and gathering together lost children, etc. Self-help and solidarity among women were particularly common phenomena. Re-creating the next best thing to a "normal" life, i.e. organising an eating and sleeping space as well as somewhere to accommodate children and the most vulnerable groups, was found to facilitate emotional recovery from post-crisis trauma.

Augusta Angelucci, UNDP, Italy

Another difference between women and men is their characteristic coping strategies when faced with disasters. We (and others in the literature) have found that women tend to use helplessness coping more than men, and men use problem-solving coping more than women... We have also found that women believe less in the possibility of mitigation. This is probably related to their limited access to knowledge.

Nuray Karanci, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey

Indirect and long-term gender differences and inequalities, as well as the heterogeneity of women and men as social groups, are all too easily missed in the absence of a gender perspective. Manifestly "heroic" men may also be "extremely vulnerable following a disaster when their loss of livelihood becomes a reality," while women "often need psycho-social support later on," Francoise Coupal (Canada) observed of Hurricane Mitch, the internal war in Colombia and the earthquake in El Salvador.

Women are challenged both by the immediate changes wrought by disaster and by long-term and indirect changes in gender relations. For example, as Angus Graham (South Africa) points out, women may experience increased single parenthood, loss of land and livelihood, displacement to urban settings, and higher exposure to such hazards as urban sex work, urban environmental pollutants, and contagious diseases such as TB or Hiv/Aids.

"Girls during difficult times become mature women. Their childish innocence is a luxury," Nicolis Kallirroi (Greece) remarked. Others agreed that the most significant economic and social impacts may be indirect and vary over the life course, as is clear in South Asia:

The housewives and young mothers affected from floods and displaced... found it more difficult to find wage labour and other income-earning opportunities. The women who had lost all their meager belongings and their life-long savings have not been able to compensate their losses even after decades. This situation has threatened their security within the family relationship...Children ( both girls and boys) dropped out from schooling. And young girls whose families lost their savings and jewelry during the floods, which was to provide [their] dowry in marriage, either lost the opportunity, or had to delay getting married, which has serious implications for their social status, psychology and survival... With regard to the old, in re-settling the extended families have been broken up in many instances leaving the old more vulnerable without the family support.

Madhavi Ariyabandu, Programme Manager-Disaster Mitigation, ITDG-South Asia

Last week's dialogue demonstrated that women's work and family lives affect not only vulnerability but capacity in the face of disaster. Commenting this week on how women's coping skills might be developed and supported, contributors noted how often emergency management systems fail women already disempowered in male-dominated households, organizations, and communities. In this vein, there were several responses to a query from Maureen Fordham (UK) about preparedness generally and early warning systems specifically:

[A] colleague's research in a Peruvian fishing village focused on forecasting methods and impacts from climate variability, specifically an El Niņo-Southern Oscillation [ENSO] warm event. After a strong El Niņo event, it was discovered that the fishermen (all male) had been warned about the upcoming event, and knew that the fishing would be poor to non-existent for the next several months. The women in the village did not receive any warnings about the upcoming conditions, because the climate forecasters issued warnings to those who would be directly impacted. The result of the ENSO warm event was increased poverty, unemployment, and harsh economic conditions. The women in the village manage the household budgets. Had they known about the onset of ENSO, they would have saved more household funds and budgeted expenses differently to prepare for the event. For some reason (socio-cultural), the men never discussed the warnings with their wives and continued to "blow their money in bars" without regard to their future situation... One of the problems with [male-dominated networks of information] is that women are primarily responsible for gardening/agriculture, securing land-based food resources, and budgeting water resources for household consumption and gardening in these places. Without access to information, they cannot minimize risks associated with their regular activities

Cheryl Anderson, Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii

What responding agencies actually do before, during, and after disasters matters to women, and to men who may be hurt by gender-blind programming, for example with respect to reconstruction resources or information or access to health services.

In Masvingo, Zimbabwe during March 2000, I observed that women who lost their granaries to the effects of Cyclone Eline expressed difficulty at the fact that essential components of granary (kitchen) construction are attributed to men, for cash payment. The women involved did not have sufficient cash, tools, time, know how, skills or energy to complete the constructions by themselves.

Angus Graham, International Consultant, South Africa

The main issue is really science/risk communication. A targeted awareness-raising should be promoted amongst women. There is a need to help the public help themselves. As women are generally the "household managers" (although I am aware that there are men who are also good at managing the household), it is important that they be given targeted information that can be useful for them, e.g. not to use the phone during a thunderstorm, or during a flood, go to higher ground, and if in a car do not try to drive.

Ana Lisa Vetere Arellano, European Commission - DG, Joint Research Centre Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen - IPSC Natural Risk Sector

We're finding that women farmers (particularly those who are not the head of the household) prefer seasonal climate forecast information to be made available through the extension officer or school, rather than the radio (preferred by male interviewees). The farmers state that in attempting to balance farming, child care and other domestic responsibilities, they are less able to schedule a fixed time to listen to the radio. They also prefer information to be provided on site, in an environment where queries can be handled immediately, and discussion can take place...This confirms a growing sense in the climate impacts and applications community that women are a crucially under-served clientele.

Emma Archer, IRI/PSU/NOAA, USA/South Africa

[Following hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua], a group of US male doctors arrived to give free medical attention to people affected by the floodwaters. As they spoke little to no Spanish, and I was a native English speaker with more than a year in country, I was called upon to translate. We set up a little camp around the pick-up ... I began each session with an introduction of the doctor and myself, explaining that I was neither a doctor nor a nurse and was there merely to translate. But, inevitably the woman would start to ask my opinion on a problem or ask me not to tell the doctor the problem because "he is a man." If I had been a man, I wonder what would've happened to all of the women we worked with that day.

Sarah Henshaw, World Food Program, Nicaragua

Threaded throughout this week's discussion was a sense of the need for urgent change and disagreement about the best ways forward. Disaster planning and response agencies with women in key places can "instill a vision" and effect change indirectly, emergency manager Cathy Diehl proposed (US), citing a bi-lingual emergency preparedness guidebook she developed to reach across cultural and linguistic barriers to all Utah households in her region. Writing from South Africa, Hesphina Rukato cautioned that "The notion that women decision-makers, even at ministerial level will assist in the strengthening of women's capacity in general has been proven false in this region." Nonetheless, many would agree with the recommendation made by Oksana Kisselyov (Ukraine) that "women in governmental structures at all levels should be increased, in particular in Ministry of Emergencies, where men dominate greatly. "

Changes were advocated as well through women's community organizing, from small groups emerging in the wake of specific events to broad initiatives bringing international agreements to bear in disaster contexts. Commentators urged that women's associations be "actively encouraged to become involved in the assistance projects, thus improving their impact." An example was provided in an island community facing ENSO climate changes, where a community education campaign both targeted women as emergency communicators and benefited from local women's involvement:

During the 1997-98 ENSO warm event, there were three locations out of seven in our study that had a few women who participated on the ENSO task forces to mitigate drought. These women were responsible for developing truly wonderful public education and awareness programs. Information was carried village-to-village. Public service announcements appeared on radios and television. The drought impacts were severe, but would have been much worse without the penetration of information that resulted in conservation programs and public health programs. The campaign to treat water before drinking (where rivers had dried considerably and ground-water was limited and/or suspect) actually reduced the recorded incidence of reported diarrheal disease significantly. From this example, it seems that targeting women with forecasts and warning may have some direct bearing on reducing the impacts of hazards.

Cheryl Anderson, Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii

Among many examples of women organizing locally in the aftermath of natural disasters, the NGO Women and Development in Armenia is remarkable for its scope and longevity. Described as a "tool for long-term challenges of natural disasters," its founders report it was born in the wake of devastating earthquakes over a decade ago. The group of nine women and four men is still in place, working with municipal workers to promote emergency planning, increasing gender awareness among the media, and fostering emergency preparedness among school children and their teachers.

The absence of solutions and the depression after the seemed endless. We had to do something to save ourselves and to survive. We had to survive in order to find a way out for other women too, who were in the same situation. It was painful for us to be watching 80 percent of Gyumri women spending half of their time standing in lines [for] humanitarian aid, and the other half finding out where to get more of it... It was necessary to create, to rebuild the city and life, to come up with the initiative to increase the social participation of women. Why women? Because they were the more vulnerable part of the population... The condition of the city pressed us, inspired to something new.

Armine Mikayelyan and Gohar Markosyan. Women for Development. Gyumri, Armenia.

Addressing the question of women's human rights in disasters, a member of Turkey's CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) committee noted the potential for abrogation of these rights and proposed an approach holding governments accountable if they have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a human rights treaty body. Institutionalizing a human rights approach would provide, for instance, for monitoring potential violations of women's human rights in disasters through existing CEDAW procedures:

Mainstreaming of a rights-based approaches and emphasis on women's human rights need to be prioritized at all levels of policy making and implementation in disasters. Instruments, efforts and strategies incorporating women's human rights into policy and practice at all levels can be expected to yield positive results. In this context, for instance, the inclusion of women's human rights training in disaster preparedness efforts would no doubt help lay the groundwork to this end.

Feride Acar, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey

Finally, contributors once again argued for more community-based, inclusive, non-bureaucratic approaches to disaster management, informed by a nuanced gender perspective, respect for local issues, solutions, and leadership, and links with development theory and practice.

The strengths, knowledge and skills possessed by men and women in preparing, managing and re-building are different and valuable in their own way. Often the skills and capabilities, resourcefulness of women are ignored in the organised institutional set up of disaster response, since women are put under the category of 'helpless victims' It is vital to remove this bias and to take into consideration the specific and different capabilities men and women deploy in living with, and in managing disasters... It is imperative to identify and formulate locally acceptable ways of addressing the issues highlighted.

Madhavi Ariyabandu, Programme Manager-Disaster Mitigation, ITDG-South Asia

Development organizations can take practical steps by ensuring that their policies and practices do not perpetuate these stereotypes, by involving both women and men in disaster relief work and ensuring that disaster response are sensitive to gender, age and ethnicity (such a disaggregated analysis is still not commonplace among aid and relief organizations). There is also a need for practical gender analysis tools that help demystify these stereotypes and provide practical strategies so that the potential of both women and men are realized.

Francoise Coupal, Mosaic.net International, Ottawa, Canada

Perhaps, in addition to looking at women as managers and organizers, and thinking of ways in which we could increase their participation in the policy/research/programmatic processes, we could increase the parameters of the problem under discussion to reflect on culture, society, world view, philosophy, history, and religion too....both in terms of the possibilities they offer which could be harnessed to support our efforts, but also in terms of the impact of their erosion in a "connected" world on the task of coping with all life-threatening events.

Fainula Rodriguez, International Institute for Disaster Risk Management, Philippines

Even at their best, Fainula Rodriquez (Philippines) concluded, our familiar bureaucratic approaches "engender narrow, technical solutions [which] promote a passive recipient/beneficiary view of those in the community about whom we are concerned." Perhaps the alternative models and more holistic approach recommended can help answer the important question posed by Etsuko Ohara (Canada), thinking of how many mothers and caregivers die needlessly in disasters: " From where we should start? Or, what is stopping us from helping women?"

Again, our heartfelt thanks for participating in the third week of this on-line conference and thanks, too, for permitting such generous editing of your wonderful messages. Elaine Enarson

PS. Don't hesitate to respond with further thoughts on these subjects-just post under the appropriate title, and don't forget to add your name and affiliation.

Elaine Enarson

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