Gender – the roles, behaviours and activities that society defines and establishes for women and men – is a factor in everyone’s daily life. The socially defined relationships and differences between women and men are important in all societies and cultures. Their roles and responsibilities differ, there are differences in their access to resources and control over them, and society gives them different decision-making authority. Men and women are affected differently by economic and social conditions and changes, and they face different degrees of hazard exposure and risk.
5.2.1 Gender and vulnerability
In general, disasters hit women harder than men, as the examples above from Aceh and Bangladesh illustrate. In the Bangladesh example, a number of factors were probably at work. Women’s physical size and strength were generally less than men’s. They may have been less able to swim or climb trees to safety because their culture discouraged girls and women from learning these skills. They may have been slowed down by clothing and children. They were probably reluctant to venture far from their homes on their own and to be crowded into a cyclone shelter with men and strangers, and so may have delayed leaving for places of safety until it was too late.
Factors such as these are the immediate causes of women’s vulnerability. The underlying causes come from women’s position in society. Compared to men, women’s access to education, resources, income-earning opportunities and land is limited. Decision-making is still largely under male control, be it about the division of household labour and control of household assets, the resolution of community problems or who benefits from official development and relief programmes. In some places, traditions and cultural taboos prevent women from travelling far from their homes without their husbands. Some women are more marginalised and hence more vulnerable than others: they include women who are on low incomes, widows, female heads of households, refugees or migrants, women living alone, members of indigenous communities or women with cognitive or physical disabilities.
Disasters can accentuate such vulnerabilities. During long-running crises, women’s workloads may increase as they can be left in charge of households when their menfolk have to migrate in search of work. Even in rapid-onset disasters, women are expected to carry out their normal domestic tasks, in addition to dealing with the consequences of the disaster itself. After disasters, their bargaining position in the competition for relief aid and other scarce resources may be weaker: single women and woman-headed households are particularly likely to lose out. Relief agencies easily lose their gender sensitivity during emergencies, amid pressure to deliver aid quickly in difficult conditions. Many relief and recovery operations target male household heads or give priority to property owners or bank account holders, who are more likely to be men, and jobs and training in recovery projects tend to be provided mainly to men – although women are often expected to work as labourers in reconstruction. The increased economic pressures and psychological stress imposed by disasters may lead to a rise in domestic violence against women, and to men abandoning their families. Women and girls who are displaced or separated from their families and community networks during and after a disaster can be at heightened risk of violence and sexual abuse.
5.2.2 Gender in relief and development programming
Awareness of gender issues is standard in development and relief programmes nowadays – or should be. It is almost impossible to obtain funding without demonstrating some awareness of these issues. Few agencies are without gender policies or stated commitments to gender equity, even if it may be a challenge to put such ideals into practice. Most agencies working on DRR pay attention to gender, but not always in a systematic manner: gender can be seen as an ‘add-on’ rather than being integrated into programming, and many organisations have too few staff with relevant skills. Interventions may focus on the most visible symptoms of women’s vulnerability and fail to look at underlying problems. For instance, they may seek to ensure that women take part in training courses and community volunteering schemes, but are less likely to look at ways of getting more women into leadership positions in those programmes and in their communities.
Participatory methods of risk and vulnerability analysis (Chapter 3) should identify gender issues, but agencies need to ensure that this happens, applying specific gender analysis tools where necessary. Special care should be taken to ensure that women’s voices are heard. Women are very aware of their vulnerability and the forces that create it; they tend to perceive and experience risks differently from men, and many are keen to become involved in participatory assessments and action planning. It has been suggested that women’s organisations and groups should train their members as community researchers and carry out their own community assessments to give a more balanced gender perspective.+E. Enarson et al., Working with Women at Risk: Practical Guidelines for Assessing Local Disaster Risk, Florida International University International Hurricane Center, 2003, https://www.gdnonline.org/resources/WorkingwithWomenEnglish.pdf. DRR projects should aim for a balance of men and women among staff and volunteers throughout the project cycle. Some programmes set targets or quotas for women’s participation, but these need to cover decision-making roles as well as carrying out tasks.
Gender awareness training is usually necessary within an organisation, and it is often an entry point for work in communities. For example, a Red Cross community disaster preparedness programme in Guangxi, China, in 2006–2009 included a gender sensitisation element in all its training for the Guangxi Red Cross, government and other local partners. This emphasised the importance of identifying the different needs and capacities of women and men and collecting gender-disaggregated data. Women trainees were given opportunities to speak and report to larger groups, to boost their self-confidence. Participants felt this approach to be beneficial, whilst acknowledging that follow-up practical training and technical support would be needed to apply their knowledge to real-life situations.+IFRC, A Practical Guide to Gender-Sensitive Approaches for Disaster Management (Geneva: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2010), http://www.ifrc.org/PageFiles/96532/A%20Guide%20for%20Gender-sensitive%20approach%20to%20DM.pdf.
Adapted from IFRC, A Practical Guide to Gender-Sensitive Approaches for Disaster Management (Geneva: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2010), http://www.ifrc.org/PageFiles/96532/A%20Guide%20for%20Gender-sensitive%20approach%20to%20DM.pdf, p. 41.
5.2.3 Building on women’s capacities
Women’s resilience and skills in coping with crisis are a valuable resource that is under-utilised by field agencies. Women’s efforts in producing and selling goods and as wage earners are central to household livelihoods, and many act as household heads if their husbands have migrated to find work elsewhere, or have abandoned them. They are usually primary caregivers, and hence experienced in looking after others, and they often take on informal disaster management roles: managing food and water supplies during drought, for instance, or looking after people who have been injured or displaced. Research suggests that, after disasters, women are much more likely to seek support from informal structures and social networks – other women and their kinship groups – than from officials, but such informal social structures are often invisible to outsiders.
Women also possess considerable technical knowledge and skills that contribute to DRR. They are often expert in traditional farming practices, such as soil conservation and inter-cropping, which can reduce the damage caused by drought or sudden rainfall. Many women in Africa know a great deal about drought-resistant seed varieties and how to use them, and about roots, fruits and other food growing in the wild that families can turn to when crops fail. They know how to preserve food for use during the hungry season or more prolonged periods of scarcity. Women are often expert in home health care and knowledgeable about traditional medicines. They are likely to be responsible for keeping drinking water clean, and in some societies for building and maintaining houses.
Research suggests that, on balance, women are more likely than men to:
E. Enarson et al., Working with Women at Risk: Practical Guidelines for Assessing Local Disaster Risk, Florida International University, 2003, https://www.gdnonline.org/resources/WorkingwithWomenEnglish.pdf.
Building upon existing capacities can be very effective. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, a number of successful drought mitigation programmes have drawn on women farmers’ and gardeners’ knowledge of how to preserve and grow traditional seed varieties. In many places disaster preparedness programmes have trained women as first-aiders, building on their customary role in giving health care. However, there are challenges in ensuring that women are adequately reached by, and represented in, DRR programmes. One of the most immediate practical challenges is to make sure that project activities fit into a woman’s working day. Training courses should be held at times when women are most likely to be free from domestic and other tasks; childcare facilities may be needed to encourage attendance. Special attention to the training approach is needed in communities where women have little or no education or experience of taking part in formal group discussions. Even where women acquire knowledge and skills as a result of training, social constraints may not offer them the opportunity to use them fully. For example, first aid training may give women living in hazard-prone areas more confidence in dealing with potential crises, but this does not necessarily improve women’s position in their community and they may still be excluded from influence in local disaster management or preparedness committees.
5.2.4 Disasters and women’s empowerment
Participatory methods provide the practical tools for giving women a voice in project planning and implementation, though there is clearly a risk that initiatives may alienate men and traditional leaders. There are examples of women being beaten by their husbands for spending time at community meetings instead of on housework, and older women giving younger women extra domestic chores to stop them going out to meetings or training courses. Such problems may be overcome through discussions in advance with potential opponents, such as village elders, religious leaders, husbands and mothers-in-law, although a good deal of time and persuasion may be needed.
A number of DRR projects seeking to build women’s capacity and involvement focus on what are customarily accepted as women’s roles, for example by giving female health workers and traditional healers first aid training. But organisations involved in disaster recovery can also take advantage of the temporary weakening of social constraints after some events to press for more fundamental changes in gender relationships and to increase women’s control over basic assets such as food, cash, housing and land. As well as presenting new income-earning opportunities, women’s involvement in relief and rehabilitation projects can boost their confidence and improve their standing in the community, especially where they take on new roles and responsibilities (see Case Study 5.2: Empowering women as local leaders in DRR). Women’s groups formed to respond to disasters can become a resource for longer-term community development and future DRR activities. Development and emergency organisations can do much to support such groups by giving technical, institutional, financial and moral support, provided that this is sensitive to the nature of local society and structures.
After the December 2004 tsunami, ActionAid launched a two-year project in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to reduce women’s marginalisation and strengthen their resilience to disasters by integrating gender perspectives into post-tsunami recovery. The main elements of the project were a participatory vulnerability analysis (PVA), organising women into groups for action and advocacy, setting up a group savings scheme for women and promoting women’s involvement in village self-help groups. The PVA gave women better knowledge and understanding of their vulnerabilities and how to overcome them. It enabled the women and their communities to identify underlying factors contributing to vulnerability, such as poor housing and lack of education, and identified community capacities and knowledge. A disaster response plan was developed from the PVA findings. Safe places to evacuate to were identified and emergency task forces were formed.
Women had not been involved in community planning and decision-making before the disaster, so this was their first experience of working in a formally organised structure. Women’s collectives were formed at village and district levels, where they could share their problems and discuss issues affecting them, make their own decisions and obtain a voice in the community. One of the issues taken up by the women collectively was learning to swim: they had been prevented from learning by cultural conventions, which led to many deaths in the tsunami. Now, with the support of the collectives, they were able to press successfully for swimming lessons. Some obtained official fishing licences, entitling them to government compensation for loss of livelihood due to floods or tidal waves.
The 32 self-help groups formed through the project undertook a range of activities, including digging and restoring wells and building dykes to prevent farmland from flooding. The groups’ gender balance was monitored: nearly half were all-women groups and only six had more men than women as members. The self-help groups were formally registered as local decision-making bodies. Through group activities, women began to take part in public dialogues on community problems and their solutions.
ActionAid International, ‘Empowering Women as Community Leaders in Disaster Risk Reduction: An Experience from the Tsunami Response Programme, Andoman and Nicobar Islands’, Gender Perspectives: Integrating Disaster Risk Reduction into Climate Change Adaptation. Good Practices and Lessons Learned (Geneva: UNISDR, 2008), http://www.unisdr.org/files/3391_GenderPerspectivesIntegratingDRRCCGood20Practices.pdf, pp. 34–38.
The involvement of women’s groups and organisations in DRR is essential to underpin individually limited activities and make sure that gender is genuinely mainstreamed into different types of organisation and their work. Building disaster resilience is more than a series of technical interventions: it requires changes in social relationships, challenging inequality and the distribution of power. Collective organisation is a means of mobilising against shocks and stresses of all kinds: environmental, economic and social.