United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women

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

"If there is a 'window of opportunity' for social change following natural disasters, how can it be exploited?"
4th week summary

Participants this week were guardedly optimistic (at best!) about the potential for significantly disrupting and transforming gender relations following natural disasters.

The possibilities for change were not in question. Most would certainly agree with Bahattin Aksit's observation from Turkey that "as physical and social space collapse" during disasters, "there is an opportunity for transforming gender roles and maintaining them in the post-disaster period." Indeed, several instances were offered of positive change. From Armenia, the NGO Women and Development targeted rural women for grassroots health education, capitalizing on the period after a major earthquake to provide more knowledge, skills, and resources to women as family health providers. Perhaps more significantly, Armine Mikayelyan and her colleagues noted (Armenia), the post-disaster period helped break women's traditional silence around health issues related to male migration, such as sexually-transmitted diseases. Because rural women were explicitly targeted for training, they were not only more able to keep families healthy but "became surer and saw themselves as part of their problem's solution."

Indian women, too, reportedly gained self-confidence following gender-sensitive relief measures targeting women:

Disasters can be great liberators!! While witnessing a very vocal meeting of rural women in village Srirampur, Orissa, about a year and a half after the cyclone of 1999, I was informed by the NGO there (Church's Auxiliary for Social Action) that before the cyclone, women would rarely come out and interact on social issues, let alone interact with outsiders. This changed after the cyclone, because relief packages of most NGOs, and even the government, were targeted at, or through, women. That phase really empowered them, made them amenable to interacting on social issues, and also increased their self-esteem and their status within their families and society! [Anshu Sharma, SEEDS, India]

Similarly, Bahattin Aksit (Turkey) observed after the 1999 Marmara earthquake that men were left "lonely and lost" while "women's local networks and friendships were empowering them to talk about the trauma and finding local community ways of coping with the new life." While women's local, community orientation was a powerful resource for them in the immediate aftermath, neither male nor female domains were significantly broadened or challenged in the aftermath of the event.

Many cautioned against a leap of faith, pointing out the power of unintended consequences and questioning the sustainability of increased equality after disasters. Unintended consequences followed from even well-intentioned and gender-sensitive reconstruction initiatives. Without informed appreciation of local cultural practices and institutions, some projects unexpectedly contributed not to women's empowerment but to the loss of traditional sources of status and power. Similarly, without a full understanding of how gender relations shape men's lives, as well as women's, the intended goals of some projects were short-circuited. The backlash against women can be subtle or perhaps even violent. Examples from Micronesia and Nicaragua make the point:

[A] number of the islands are traditionally matrilineal, with women taking responsibility for land-based activities and how the land is transferred. Land is rare, and is therefore, a source of great power. . . In not understanding the matrilineal systems [donor agencies] approach response and recovery operations by deciding where to locate structures and the types of materials to be used. The site determination may have been the women's responsibility. . . [Construction materials] are imported, which for a number of reasons can be problematic. . . The same occurs with food assistance delivered in quantities and types inappropriate to the cultural system. . . preferences change. [W]omen do not quickly repair gardens, expectations for food assistance lead people to not gather planting materials in the next disaster, and some family members migrate to the capital to earn cash for purchasing these preferred imported food products. The government's power grows as it is seen as more important than the value of the traditional lifestyle. More men are employed in the limited cash economy than women. . . The value of subsistence work erodes---as does the socio-cultural structure that values the roles of women. Sometimes the social impacts from this can be devastating---alcoholism, domestic abuse, etc. [Cheryl Anderson, Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii]

As I began a project rebuilding houses for families affected by Hurricane Mitch I worked primarily with women. . . I had spoken to the American Red Cross and Save the Children USA, who had told me that they were putting their houses in the name of the women. They were also, like WFP, giving food assistance directly to women. . . Tensions began to rise, as the men had nothing to do except build houses. Building houses was fine, but finding a job to sustain the family after the aid had gone was close to impossible. Houses became symbols of the men's ability to provide for the family. . . After Hurricane Mitch many men worked on rehabilitation and received food aid in exchange for their work. Yet, in many cases, women went to pick up the family rations from distribution points and cooked the family meals. Many men spoke of their "payment" being given to women and couldn't understand why. . . Women's names were going to appear on the titles, and they were going to be considered the owners of the houses. As I understood that many men did not stay year around, and knew that all of the women had worked on building the houses, it seemed good to give the houses to women. Yet, once the titles were handed over and signed, men started permanently disappearing (not sending money home) and two women showed signs of violence. . . I know that the signs of violence I saw were not unique after Hurricane Mitch, and that the impact of focusing aid on women is equally damaging for the community as focusing aid on men was 15 year ago. [Sarah Henshaw, World Food Program, Nicaragua]

Additionally, observers argued that the sustainability of changes ostensibly empowering women must be questioned, if only to better understand the forces undermining disaster initiatives geared toward gender equality. Especially for people and places "trapped in a disaster cycle," as Dave Etkin (Canada) noted, the key issue is "to maintain the change over time, as rare events tend to become lost in memory and our institutional decision-making tends to value short-term goals (until the next election)."Not only myopia but political and economic interests can undermine steps toward gender equality following disasters. Citing Indian's women income-generating efforts after the Orissa cyclone (e.g., seed banks, rice ponding, rope making), Anshu Sharma [India]also cautioned that more "innovative programming" was needed to avoid setting women up for failure over the long run by having "to compete with existing players in an already saturated market."

Apparently progressive changes may not be long-lived, as is so often the case during and after armed conflict. Miranda Dandoulaki (Greece) suggested that natural disasters are "extreme and extraordinary situations" which may bring women more directly into acclaimed activities in the public sphere-but not for long:

[D]isasters by definition are connected with a shortage of resources and lack of capacity to cope with the situation in the disaster area. This makes easier the use of all available human resources (men and women). My experience is that there is a stronger involvement of women in public, social and political matters during the emergency phase than in normal periods, and also a more active participation in the efforts of the community to deal with the situation. Nevertheless, in most cases women are involved in "secondary" support operations (such as food preparation and distribution, information dissemination, child care, health and psychological support, shelter) and not in the well-publicized and media-attracting operations, such as search and rescue. Also, the involvement of women in most cases lasts until things "go back to normal." A crucial topic is how to intervene at the transaction phase to support women keeping the role they gained during the extreme emergency phase. [Miranda Dandoulaki, OASP, Greece]

What makes unanticipated consequences and unsustained change so likely? The case studies and commentary suggested a range of reasons for failure, including:

  • outside actors misinterpreting local power structures and social dynamics
  • reinforcing local cultures that may in turn "promote and reinforce a disempowering role for women"
  • inattention to how gender-targeted services are likely to impact men and women, respectively, over time
  • short-term, self-interested perspectives on relief and recovery
  • unintended program effects which undermine women's capacities
  • lack of empirical knowledge (research) about short- and long-term prospects for change
  • backlash against challenges to gender power
  • the "paternalistic disposition of aid agencies and governments"
  • insufficient control over recovery and reconstruction resources by women

But respondents also spoke directly and indirectly to success. To foster sustained gender equality in the wake of natural disasters, they suggested the need for new kinds of vulnerability analysis, and affirmed again the significance of participatory disaster planning. Some also argued the need for new theoretical frameworks and increased research.

In a rapidly deteriorating cultural environment, culture, class and socio-economic status become increasingly complex and difficult to disaggregate- the "snapshot" taken today is no longer relevant tomorrow, so to speak. Having said that, the vulnerability analysis done today is still the best approximation as far as a methodology for examining the differential vulnerability of women and men, in various cultural and socio-economic contexts. I believe that the essential, when undertaking such vulnerability analyses, is to be clear about one's assumptions on the one hand, and use multiple methods- ethnographic approaches being among the most important in my opinion. [Fibula Rodriguez, International Institute for Disaster Risk Management,Philippines]

The "window of opportunity" does exist, but requires that care and appropriate planning occur prior to the onset of any hazard ---partially in the culture of any of the donor and aid organizations and/or NGOs working in the area. This also requires that the people and communities that will be affected during disasters have a role in designing their own programs. Some of the local men designed structures using local materials (thatched roofs, wood bases, fishing nets to secure roofs, sometimes modified with reinforced concrete bases) that withheld a typhoon far better than those constructed from imported materials. Nursery programs were developed to store seeds and clippings that can be distributed for faster garden recovery. Programs were designed to distribute local foods, such as taro and root crops from neighboring islands. Program consequences should be evaluated and the approach to planning should be participatory. [Cheryl Anderson, Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii]

[W]e have too few examples, and even fewer documented cases with which we can support our arguments. I know researchers are always saying we need to do more research but this is truly the case here - not that I think research is the answer to our problems, I hasten to add! What factors [make social changes following disaster] empowering and liberatory…? What are the factors which lead to women's empowerment that is sustainable and gender equitable? [Maureen Fordham, Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge, UK]

We should develop a social science framework which goes beyond existing disciplines. This does not mean that we cannot study disasters from disciplinary frameworks, we can and we should. But it is not enough. We should go beyond and develop new social science frameworks. It was same with women/gender studies, where several new social science frameworks emerged. It is same with the study of change, where to study current changes in the world, several globalization frameworks, world system frameworks and so on emerged. In studying disasters, gender and change we need a new post disciplinary framework. [Bahattin Aksit, Department of Sociology, Middle East Technical University, Turkey]

A number of respondents cautioned against implementing gender-targeted programming without full and complete gender analysis. Noting that women's control over disaster resources is empowering, they also urged increased decision-making power. Both the power of law and governmental policy and the promise of postdisaster mobilization at the local level were noted.

[A]s a woman it was easier to relate to women, and. . . I followed the lead of experienced NGOs working in [Nicaragua after Hurricane Mitch] who were working primarily with women. . . This was all because giving to the women theoretically empowered women and ensured that the family as a unit could partake in the assistance. I had not analyzed the potential impact on the community as a whole, even though I thought I understood the individual gender roles. I learned that understanding gender roles means looking at the roles of both men and women, and the impact a potential project can have on the community as a whole. [Sarah Henshaw, World Food Program, Nicaragua]

[Disasters in most cases are connected with additional inflow of resources (human, financial, technical, know-how, attention of the media and policy makers, etc.) in the disaster area at least in the first phase. Although one can find many cases of misuse and short-sighted utilization of these resources, on the other hand they are a seed for change, if a gender-aware reconstruction policy is decided and measures are taken with the view to long term intervention and change. [Bahattin Aksit, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey]

What are the factors which lead to women's empowerment that is sustainable and gender equitable? . . . The one that clearly stands out to me is control over resources. The Orissa example is one where the fact that women received the family relief kits, house building grants, loans and. . . memberships, and passed on the benefits to the families made all the difference. Extending the logic, I would like to add the factor of grater participation in domestic and social-decision making. This is what seems to be at work now, when the relief phase is long over. [Anshu Sharma, SEEDS, India]

[Self-help income-generating measures following South Asian cyclones] started a new social system, wherein the position of women is higher than it ever was. This appears to have been well accepted by everyone. Also important here is the role of an Indian Constitutional Amendment reserving one-third of seats in elected local governments (rural and urban) for women. Though there have been teething problems in the process, there is promise of a very positive impact. [Anshu Sharma, SEEDS, India]

Regardless of the size or the length of the harmful effects, disasters have the advantage to encourage a mobilization of the energies and the demonstration of the wills of action to attenuate the sufferings and the impact on the physical plan. Mechanisms such as social mobilization during a natural or a provoked disaster should be exploited to reorient the visions. In plain times, the individualistic behaviors and attitudes tinted of selfishness don't encourage any open-minded person for a possible change. [Madeleine Memb, Journalist, Cameroon]

From their measured discussion of relative successes and apparent failures, commentators this week suggested practical first steps and long-range strategies toward sustained gender equality after disasters. Using the brief "window of opportunity" to empower women, and hence reduce community vulnerability to future disasters, is a difficult undertaking but not "mission impossible."

With thanks for your acceptance of editorial changes and an invitation to post your last-minute thoughts on this topic and join in next week's discussion as well.

Elaine Enarson

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