by Lan Mercado

Oxfam Advisor to the ASEAN for Partnership and Resource Mobilisation for ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response and former Oxfam Country Director for the Philippines and former Regional Programme Manager for East and South Asia

Disasters have started to make big headlines, mainly for the drama that it evokes. While the attention that all kinds of media puts on the scale of a disaster’s impact and the suffering that people caught in one go through is welcome, this kind of focus excludes many other aspects of disasters.

For one, we need to appreciate the phenomena of disasters. While there are natural hazards, such as a fault line or a volcano or a cyclone, all disasters happen as a result of the interaction of various factors. John Twigg, one of the better known authors on disaster risk reduction, said that “a disaster takes place when a community is affected [or overwhelmed] by a hazard. In other words, the impact of the disaster is determined by the extent of a community’s vulnerability to the hazard.”

This statement is true; but it is also gender-blind. A community is made up of various groups with their own specific vulnerabilities and capacities. The study of the combination of hazards, vulnerabilities and capacities is called a risk analysis. A risk analysis is necessary if one is to understand the hazards faced by a population, the factors that make them vulnerable to such hazards and their capacity to cope.

Vulnerability

Social exclusion is central to the notion of vulnerability. Social exclusion affects the use and control of resources, as well as access to information and decision-making power. Often this means that livelihood options, in the face of hazards, may be more limited for women and other excluded groups. Vulnerability analysis is disaggregated to highlight the factors that make some groups especially vulnerable. It is widely recognized that ‘women face different challenges and levels of vulnerability as compared to male counterparts: “there is a pattern of gender differentiation at all levels of the disaster process: exposure to risk, risk perception, preparedness, response, physical impact, psychological impact, recovery and reconstruction (WHO, 2002).”

by Lan Mercado

Oxfam Advisor to the ASEAN for Partnership and Resource Mobilisation for ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response and former Oxfam Country Director for the Philippines and former Regional Programme Manager for East and South Asia

Disasters have started to make big headlines, mainly for the drama that it evokes. While the attention that all kinds of media puts on the scale of a disaster’s impact and the suffering that people caught in one go through is welcome, this kind of focus excludes many other aspects of disasters.

For one, we need to appreciate the phenomena of disasters. While there are natural hazards, such as a fault line or a volcano or a cyclone, all disasters happen as a result of the interaction of various factors. John Twigg, one of the better known authors on disaster risk reduction, said that “a disaster takes place when a community is affected [or overwhelmed] by a hazard. In other words, the impact of the disaster is determined by the extent of a community’s vulnerability to the hazard.”

This statement is true; but it is also gender-blind. A community is made up of various groups with their own specific vulnerabilities and capacities. The study of the combination of hazards, vulnerabilities and capacities is called a risk analysis. A risk analysis is necessary if one is to understand the hazards faced by a population, the factors that make them vulnerable to such hazards and their capacity to cope.

Vulnerability

Social exclusion is central to the notion of vulnerability. Social exclusion affects the use and control of resources, as well as access to information and decision-making power. Often this means that livelihood options, in the face of hazards, may be more limited for women and other excluded groups. Vulnerability analysis is disaggregated to highlight the factors that make some groups especially vulnerable. It is widely recognized that ‘women face different challenges and levels of vulnerability as compared to male counterparts: “there is a pattern of gender differentiation at all levels of the disaster process: exposure to risk, risk perception, preparedness, response, physical impact, psychological impact, recovery and reconstruction (WHO, 2002).”

Several studies show that disaster mortality rates are higher for women than for men, and that this is caused by differences in the vulnerability of women and men that are the result of socially constructed gender roles. Following the 2004 Asian tsunami, Oxfam found that in many villages in Aceh, Indonesia, and in parts of India, females accounted for over 70 percent of the dead. In the 1991 cyclone disaster that killed 140,000 in Bangladesh, 90 percent of victims were women and girls. A study of 141 countries found that more women than men are killed during disasters; and at an earlier age, particularly in poor communities, because of the discrimination they suffer due to their gender.

Climate change has exacerbated the impacts of natural meteorological hazards. Oxfam’s Learning Companion on Gender, Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation illustrate how the impacts of climate change and disasters magnify existing inequalities between men and women. ‘Women tend to be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and are affected in their multiple roles as food producers and providers, as guardians of health, as care-givers, and as economic actors. Drought, saline intrusion into water sources, and erratic rainfall all cause women to work harder to secure resources such as food, water, and fuel. They mean that women have less time to earn an income, to access education or training, or to participate in decision-making processes. This, in addition to the fact that women make up the majority of the world’s poor, means that climate change and disaster are likely to have disproportionately negative effects on them, potentially increasing their poverty and unequal status.’

In addition, ‘violence against women, both from intimate partners and unknown men, is known to rise after disasters. The risk of this may be increased by a lack of privacy and safety in camps or shelters; coercion to provide sex for goods or services; and a backlash against women who have taken on new leadership roles.’

Various studies have summarised the reasons for women’s vulnerability into three main categories that are interdependent and may reinforce each other.

  • Biological and physical differences between men and women – It is a fact that men are physically better equipped to withstand the corresponding bodily impacts of disasters. An Oxfam International study of the disproportionate death toll on women in Aceh during the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami pointed out female physiology as the main reason. “Many women and young children, unable to struggle to stay on their feet or afloat simply tired and drowned. Women clinging to one or more children would tire even more quickly.” (Oxfam International, 2005). In case of pregnancy, women face even greater disadvantages due to their often limited mobility. After a disaster has struck, women suffer from premature delivery, delivery-related complications, stillbirth, early pregnancy loss and infertility. Taboos relating to the menstrual cycle and norms about women’s and girls’ behaviour can also cause health issues such as urinary tract infections during a disaster.
  • Pre-existing social norms and role behaviour – Limited access to education that results in illiteracy and the exclusion from timely and understandable early warning systems is a clear issue affecting women’s preparedness (UNISDR, 2002). Certain skills are also taught to boys and men, or as seen as exclusively male tasks. In many places, boys and men survive because they can climb trees because they have done so countless times while playing or picking fruit. But girls and women have never done this and therefore cannot apply the skill when needed. The same is often true also for swimming. In addition, traditional women’s clothing impedes running and swimming and hinders women from attempting to rescue themselves.

    Related to this is the traditional division of labour. Women take on the role of family caregivers and are responsible for looking after domestic property. (WHO, 2002) This may decrease their chances of survival because they feel responsible and therefore choose to stay behind to look after children and other relatives. They may also feel that they have to wait for their husbands to decide when to evacuate.

    Being at home also puts women at increased risk. Men who work outside the home often work in robust buildings or in open areas; whereas women operate in dwellings that are easily stricken down. (Pluemper/Neumayer, 2007)
  • Exacerbated and new forms of gender discrimination in the aftermath of disasters - This refers to the breakdown of social order and discriminatory practices in the aftermath of a disaster. An important aspect of this third reason is limited access to resources. Where patterns of gender discrimination were widespread beforehand, such practices tend to be exacerbated by disasters with the consequence of systematic disadvantages in food distribution and other relief assistance. (UNSECAP, 2009). “The majority of relief efforts are intended for the entire population of a disaster-affected area; however, when they rely on existing structures of resource distribution that reflects the patriarchal structure of society, women are marginalised in their access to resources. (Pan American Health Organisation, 2002)

    Further, women are burdened with greater responsibilities after the disaster as compared to before. This is due to various reasons such as the ‘flight of men,’ damaged economic livelihoods and dramatically expanded care-giving roles. (WHO, 2002) In many places, migration is still rarely an option for women due to domestic duties. This results in an increase in female-headed households where women bear the increased burden of productive and reproductive roles, economic and domestic tasks.

    The increased workload and tension affects women health and general well-being. WHO studies showed that women suffer more from post-disaster distress and emotional disorders than men. Women are also likely to become engaged in risky coping strategies such as selling sex for shelter, goods or money, which exposes them to sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV.

Capacity

Women are not just victims of disasters, however. Post-disaster periods offer women a chance to challenge their gendered status in society by taking on tasks traditionally performed by men. During a disaster response, women’s unique skills in mobilising the community are a greatly valued asset. Women form “groups and networks of social actors who work to meet the most pressing needs of the community.” (Pan American Health Organisation, 2002) Women are also adept at integrating education and information programmes into post-disaster work by women. (UNISDR, 2002) They demonstrate extraordinary powers of resilience during disasters and they can also be powerful agents of change. Women have repeatedly led initiatives not just in coping with the immediate impact of disasters but in recovering and rebuilding communities. In disaster situations, women have shown themselves essential in mobilizing communities to prepare for and to respond to disaster. (Oxfam, 2011)

Support for women to develop new skills as part of disaster responses has a positive long-term effect on women’s roles, society’s perception of their abilities and women’s self-confidence. Opportunities for empowerment and progress usually manifest in the areas of education, training, livelihood, recovery planning, and risk reduction policy development -- all of which need to be maximised to help shift the traditional roles and division of labour not just in the economic realm but also in the sector of disaster risk reduction.

Understanding how gender relations shape a community’s vulnerability and capacity is therefore critical to ensuring effective disaster preparedness planning. Such planning needs to be complemented with the clarification and development of a women’s agenda in disaster risk reduction and advocating for the inclusion of this agenda in disaster risk reduction policies and other institutional arrangements. Only then will the shift be sustainable.

Pakistani Women’s Recommendations

In January 2007, Oxfam talked to 50 women survivors of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake to discuss the humanitarian response to the disaster. The purpose of the meeting was to help members of the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum learn how to serve women better in emergency and disaster response. It was also to understand the opinions of ordinary women, who do not often have the chance to publicly express their point of view. One theme throughout the workshop was how much working women valued the increased space they had to participate in the earthquake response. However, it also put them in a difficult position, negotiating these roles in their communities, families and within the NGOs they worked for. The women’s recommendations provide a good starting point for thinking about ensuring that humanitarian actions support women’s empowerment. A few highlights:

  1. Involvement of Women and other Affected Groups
    • Ensure inclusion and participation of women in the humanitarian needs assessment, in the planning processes, aid distribution process, camp management, in the formation of local committees, and in decision and policy making.
    • Provide more information in the local language to disaster-affected women and men to support the participation of local communities.
    • Provide training opportunities for women.
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  3. Women’s Safety & Security
    • Always have separate latrine and washroom facilities for women and men.
    • Establish a women’s shelter and women welfare centres where women can be protected and receive services.
    • Provide information and services that are specifically targeted at women.
    • Devise women protection policies; increase social and political awareness, preparedness and education to contribute to women’s ability to be self-sufficient, greatly reducing their fear and trauma in future disasters.
    • Harassment of women must not be tolerated.
    • NGOs, the military and police who respond to a disaster should include more women as their employees. Because the police and military play a crucial role especially in the first phase of an emergency response, the military needs cultural awareness and gender training.
    • Be aware of and find ways to reduce family and community pressure on women staff to show favouritism.

     

  4. Quality Standards and Accountability
    • Pay greater attention to specific needs of women, such as pregnant and breastfeeding women, and ensure appropriate facilities for them.
    • Ensure that the quality of services and relief items are based on local needs and ground realities on, including cultural and traditional values and refer to international humanitarian standards.
    • Organizations, including local governments, should be held accountable and their activities should be monitored by the communities and government.
    • Proper statistics should be available regarding the affected area so that the same data could be used for proper planning and repeated humanitarian needs assessments could be avoided.

In sum, humanitarian and disaster risk reduction interventions must work in ways that restore and maintain the self-respect and dignity of women. Disaster risk reduction must help create awareness about women’s rights and the rights of underprivileged while taking account of the strength of community and local agency capacity and their ability to cope.

Isis International thanks Lan Mercado, who is a former staff member of Isis International before joining Oxfam for providing us with this article based on her experience in working with women in disasters.

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