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Build back better: disaster management as an opportunity for gender equality?

Ecuador, 2011: A woman sowing oca (Oxalis tuberosa).

Why gender matters in times of disasters

While disasters strike a population as a whole, they can be particularly hard on women and children, who are up to 14 times more likely to die during natural hazards than men. But why does gender make such a difference? Vulnerability to natural hazards is not an external independent variable but greatly depends on coping capacity. It is socially constructed and largely determined by political and socio-economic conditions.

If we understand gender as the social roles and economic opportunities attributed to women and men, it can significantly shape the ability of individuals to cope with or recover from disasters. In many societies, social norms, roles and power dynamics related to gender increase women’s vulnerabilities to disasters, as they have lower levels of education and skills, less access to resources and lower levels of mobility. However, examples like Hurricane Mitch in 1998 show that men can also suffer from gendered impacts: due to gender norms and ideas of masculinity, men put themselves at greater risk during the weather event, with the result that more men than women died during the hurricane.

Preparing for and recovering from disasters

Women in the global south also have limited access to financial and material resources, education and knowledge to prepare for and recover from climate-induced disasters. In India, for example, women often have less access to critical climate data and information on weather alerts than men. Where women’s mobility is impeded by social norms, expecting them to stay around the house, or by dress codes that hamper their ability to move quickly, their chances to survive a disaster substantially decrease. Poverty, social restrictions and power structures, roles in decision-making, and lack of life skills such as swimming or climbing trees explain why in the 2004 Asian tsunami, more than 70 percent of the casualties were women.

Women who are excluded from knowledge of coping strategies, employment and legal assets such as property find it much harder to recover from weather-related shocks. As women are traditionally responsible for household wellbeing, they have to work harder when food and water become scarcer after disasters at the cost of other income-generating activities or education. These constraints limit their ability to cope with disasters and exacerbate existing gender-based inequalities and discrimination.

Disasters and gender-based violence

Human trafficking of women and children has always been a problem in India’s West Bengal. But when destruction and flooding from cyclone Aila displaced more than one million people in the Sundarbans in 2009, the rate of human trafficking skyrocketed. According to a report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the number of missing women in West Bengal has increased 33-fold from 2001 to 2010. The state of West Bengal is at high risk from multiple hazards such as flooding, cyclones, drought, landslides or soil erosion – and climate change is expected to increase their frequency and intensity.

Disasters are increasingly being related with gender-based violence, as the case of India and Bangladesh illustrates. In the aftermath of disasters, patterns of discrimination can be aggravated and women often face protection risks including inequitable access to relief aid, lack of security in emergency accommodations, violence and human trafficking. 70 to 80 percent of individuals exposed to international trafficking are female, half of which are girls. According to a report by the UN Environment Program, human trafficking increases by 20 to 30 percent in times of disasters, for two main reasons:

First, disasters increase livelihood insecurity and are hardest on poor people with fewer resources to recover, the majority of which are women. After cyclone Aila, per capita income in coastal communities in Bangladesh dropped by one third, and the poverty rate increased from 41 to 63 percent within two years. This makes women with little education and few economic opportunities more vulnerable to be lured by false promises of education, employment, or safety, ultimately being trapped in exploitation, prostitution or forced labor.

Second, disasters create chaotic conditions in which local safety nets and protective patterns are disrupted and social control and family support structures are eroded. Displacement and loss of homes and possessions put women and children at great risk of exploitation, abduction, slavery, prostitution, and gender-based violence. When disasters overburden already fragile state institutions, protection mechanisms and law enforcement are further eroded.

The potential of gender-sensitive disaster management

Women are often reduced to their role as victims of disasters and climate change, and only 17 percent of all national adaptation programmes of action (NAPAs) adopt a gender perspective. Many policies that include gender focus on disaster response rather than prevention and management. While recognizing their vulnerabilities is necessary, the great potential of women as agents of change in adaptation should not be overlooked. Traditionally, women are major actors in many areas that are related to disaster prevention and management, with significant responsibilities “for managing critical productive resources such as land, water, livestock, biodiversity, fodder, fuel, and food”, as a UNEP report notes. However, analysis by UNISDR has shown that 62 out of 70 countries failed to collect gender-disaggregated data on disaster vulnerability and capacity in implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action to reduce disaster risk  an important instrument for creating an enabling environment for women to participate and shape decisions.

If policies fail to include women and their needs they risk reinforcing traditional patriarchal structures of society and marginalizing women even further. Conversely, by including women’s voices as well as their experiences and leadership in disaster and climate risk management, disaster recovery can present unique opportunities to change traditional gender roles. While they may not have formal leadership positions, women can play a vital role in strengthening the social fabric in the aftermath of a disaster, thereby supporting both equitable and peaceful disaster recovery. To harness their potential in rebuilding resilience and their leadership in civil society, women must be involved in all stages of decision making, programs and policies.

Applying a gender-sensitive approach, disasters can, in fact, increase women’s participation in formal processes of DRR and help to build back better. Gender-sensitive post-disaster recovery may increase security and livelihood opportunities for women, change power dynamics by empowering women to assume new responsibilities and improve their access to assets. This reduces vulnerability to exploitation and gender-based violence. This is not to say that disasters are silver linings for women, but rather to argue that instead of responses that exacerbate gender inequalities, disasters can be seen as starting points for empowerment.

Making the Sendai Framework gender-sensitive

With the recognition of gender equality in its preamble, the Paris Agreement is a first step in this direction. The statement that “capacity-building should be […a] process that is […] gender-responsive” now needs to be translated into action to strengthen disaster resilience of both women and men. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction already recognizes the importance of including gender dimensions in disaster management, stating that “women and their participation are critical to effectively managing disaster risk […]; and adequate capacity building measures need to be taken to empower women for preparedness as well as build their capacity for alternate livelihood means in post-disaster situations”.

Moving forward on this commitment, policy makers need to promote the potential of women’s leadership in DRR throughout all four priorities of action of the Sendai framework: (1) understanding disaster risk, particularly through context-specific gender analysis and collection of gender-disaggregated data; (2) strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risks, by including the voices and ensuring participation of women from local communities; (3) investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience, ensuring gender-responsive budgeting and (4) enhancing disaster preparedness for effective responses, recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Katharina Nett is a Project Manager at adelphi, where she focuses on the links between environmental change, fragility and conflict.


Photo credit: Women involved in community meeting to discuss village reconstruction in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Nugroho Nurdikiawan Sunjoyo / World Bank (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).