Building Resilience, Transforming the Future: The Role of Women in Disaster Risk Reduction

Building Resilience, Transforming the Future: The Role of Women in Disaster Risk Reduction

Women are disproportionately affected by disasters but are rarely included in disaster planning. The Third UN Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction that concluded on 18th March in Sendai, Japan, once again raises the important question: what is the role of women in reducing the risk of disaster? The post-2015 agenda on disaster risk reduction (DRR) must account for the enormous impact disasters have on women, and include measures that actively promote their participation and leadership in DRR planning and preparedness. This will require greater political will and sustained financial investment around gender-equality and gender-mainstreaming if it is to be the game-changer needed to reduce poverty and save lives in the pursuit of sustainable development. 

Disasters exacerbate pre-existing barriers and inequalities for women, exposing them to even greater risk in their multiple roles as food producers and providers, health guardians, economic actors and care-givers.   Across the world, women tend to hold less negotiating power and control over resources than men, which feeds into the lack of access to decision-making processes and consistently renders them more vulnerable to the impacts of disasters.  Disaster mortality reflects this gender disparity: following the 2004 Asian tsunami Oxfam found women accounted for 70% of deaths in many villages in Aceh, Indonesia and in parts of India (Oxfam 2005.)  When they survive, they have to struggle through recover efforts; often women are forced to work harder to secure resources, such as water, food and fuel.  This reinforces the cycle of poverty and vulnerability faced by women, since they become increasingly restricted in their life choices to earn an income, seek an education, or participate in decision-making processes. 

Without the full participation and contribution of women in decision-making and leadership, real community resilience to disasters cannot be achieved. Moreover, research suggests that for every $1 invested in DRR measures, $7 in post-disaster recovery can be saved (Asian Development Bank 2008). Recognising this, key stakeholders gathered at the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR 2015) to urge greater efforts to broaden and strengthen opportunities for women’s inclusion, and make full use of women’s leadership capabilities in DRR. The aim of the conference was to update the landmark Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA 2005), which although recognised a greater role for women in DRR, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction nevertheless states that serious gaps and challenges remain in the implementation of commitments on gender equality and women’s rights on DRR efforts. In 2009 only 20 percent of countries reported improvement to incorporating gender into HFA national action plans, with no change in 2011.

As such, UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin sees WCDRR 2015 as a new opportunity to reset current policy and “galvanise around common disaster risk reduction agenda and commit to collective actions that put women at the centre.”  As he further notes, sustainable and sustained DRR requires an accountability framework to measure progress and move towards implementation at the national and local level. This necessitates for greater availability and usage of gender-disaggregated data, research and programming to facilitate gender-responsive DRR management.  


Generating Data-Disaggregated Data, Research and Programming.
The UN WCDRR Issue Brief (2015) outlined four guiding points on promoting gender-disaggregated data:
1. Ensuring that targets and indicators on post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction include gender and age-disaggregated data;
2. Improving availability and use of gender-disaggregated data in risk assessments, hazards exposure, vulnerability assessment, design of people-centered early warning systems, preparedness and contingency planning and in post-disasters assessment of impacts;
3. The outcomes of gender analysis carried out during risk, vulnerability, and capacity assessments should be integrated into wider community programming and policy objective.
4. Improving linkages in monitoring and reporting mechanisms for international frameworks, agreements and commitments related to gender equality and disaster risk reduction to allow for improved progress tracking and accountability with respect to women engagement in DRR (e.g. reporting on the Convention the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Commission on the Status of Women, Beijing Agenda for Global Action on Gender-Sensitive DRR, climate change agreement, post-2015 development agenda, and the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction).


A gendered approach must account for community based planning, which is more inclusive and participatory than ‘top-down’ strategies that dominate traditional DRR. The advantage of participatory approaches is that they foster ownership and empowerment through self-efficacy.  Yet, WCDRR’s tops panels where dominated by men on topics covering women’s disaster-related issues, further demonstrating that women’s role in DRR are being undermined by pre-existing barriers and inequalities to decision-making processes. The World Food Programme Executive Director Ertharin Cousin states that WCDRR 2015 must be seen as the “global reset”: “[w]e must recognise and mobilise women going forward… (this means) women must be in the lead chairs during these discussions…it is time to move from aspiration to implementation.” Fundamental to this is ensuring that women’s community-based organisations (CBOs) are fully supported in their involvement in emergency preparedness and response. This will necessitate connecting CBO training with national DRR planning.

As recovery efforts start in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam hit the Asian-Pacific region earlier this month, there are key lessons to be learned about disaster preparedness and the role of women. After the storm, local women’s organizations were amongst the first-responders assisting disaster relief response, being well equipped with community networks and mobilisation skills.  However, ActionAid Australia Executive Director Michelle Higgins (2015) warned that despite women’s pro-activeness and willingness to assist in disaster response, they severely lack access to resources to scale-up their efforts and are often excluded from decision-making structures around disaster response.  In the long term, this will limit their ability to recover and build back up their livelihoods and security, risking many more women falling into destitution in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Disasters provide a unique opportunity to transform the way decision-makers plan and approach risk management. Post-disaster reforms in Japan provide an example of best practice and lesson learnt.   In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Sendai in 2011,  evacuation centres did not respond to women’s needs as they were mostly run by men; effectively, women had no place to change or breastfeed, had no separate bathrooms and lacked sanitary products. Moreover, in 2011 Sendai comprised only 10% of women working on the city’s DRR. Japan is now changing this dynamic: women are represented at all prefectural disaster management councils and women will be included in the global project to train 40,000 officials and community members to play leading roles in DRR and reconstruction.  This ensures that interventions are not just done for the purpose at the time but are a crucial building block to resilience, with women playing a key role.

Such thinking is particularly relevant for Asia Pacific countries, home to around three billion people and taking over 70% hit of all natural disaster worldwide with a total cost of USD 68billion annually between 2003 and 2013. Given that these statistics disproportionately impact women, who experience loss of livelihoods, homelessness and displacement, Emmeline Verzosa, Chair of the APEC Policy Partnership on Women and Leadership (PPWL), asserts “empowering women to mitigate disaster is critical…an environment that widens the door of opportunity for women in economics and advances women’s entrepreneurship and role as agents of change is really what is needed to get at the root of the exposure problem.” Therefore, unless women are also given opportunities to be educated and given fair job opportunities to reverse the social and cultural restraints they will continue to be exposed to preventable risk.

To mitigate the risks, the latest APEC PPWL meeting convened DRR experts from APEC member economies who sought consultations with women who have been the drivers behind reconstruction projects since the Sendai disaster. The results from these consultations will facilitate women-orientated services, training and skills development, funding channels, and partnerships with governments, aid agencies and local organisations. In so doing, within greater efforts to “build back better”, businesses are better able to absorb the shocks of disasters, remain a support system for affected people and assist in rebuilding and recovery efforts. 

FemLINKPacific, a community-based media group in the Pacific, is an example of the ways women are being involved to inject gender-perspectives and approaches into DRR at the national and local level.  Adi Vasuleva of FemLINKPacific highlighted how:

 “During extreme whether and early warning signs of disasters women are communicating via SMS or they approach the radio to speak up and share their views, fears and concerns…community media, in particular the radio, has demonstrated the role as a bridge between communities and decision-makers, in order to make sure that local communities are heard and to assure that they are consulted when adaptation measures are developed…Continuous two-way information and communication is key to empowering the communities to become more resilient through their own knowledge and action, with the assistance of high-level decision makers. ”

Gender Representation and Participation
UN WCDRR  Issue Briefing (2015) proposes six measures create space for the active involvement of women and promote them as agents of change in DRR within local and national capacities:
1. Establishing participatory decision making and oversight mechanisms to facilitate the voice and influence of gender equality advocates, civil society and national women’s machineries, in shaping public policy, making investment decisions, and monitoring investment and performance of Disaster Risk Management institutions;
2. Promoting and creating opportunities for collaboration and partnerships between women’s and grassroots organizations, gender equality champions and national and local disaster management institutions in the development, management, implementation and monitoring of national and local DRR efforts;
3. Recognizing and strengthening women’s organisations and networks for improved capacity and participation in DRR at policy and programme levels with particular focus on building on community resilience efforts led by grassroots organizations;
4. Supporting community resilience efforts of grassroots women’s organizations. Their knowledge and expertise should be formally recognised and incorporated fully into disaster risk reduction plans at local and national levels.
5. It is also important to engage men and boys as essential partners in promoting the valuable contributions and leadership of women.
6. Ensuring women’s legal entitlements and practical access to assistance and services in relation to disaster risk management such as basic health services, including sexual and reproductive health, compensations, cash transfers, insurance, social security, credit, employment.


Taken together, the measures laid out here will ensure deliberate steps towards a more proactive-people centred approach to reducing risks and vulnerabilities during disasters. In so doing, this will build on the work currently being done by women and ensure they are visible in decisions that affect their lives.  Disasters should not been seen as ‘silver linings’ for women but as opportunities to galvanise momentum towards more comprehensive participation and representative in risk reduction. Gender-sensitive DRR management deliver smart investment: by empowering women we enable them to make the right decisions about their family and their community, and better able protect future development outcomes.  Women, therefore, are the pre-requisite for the success of the post-2015 framework for DRR.

Photo credit: Shelterbox

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