Why women have a special role to play in disaster relief

They are the single largest demographic group worst affected by natural and human-caused disasters.

 |  6-minute read |   27-04-2015
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Nature has manifested its might in the form of yet another disaster. After the devastating floods in Uttarakhand, Kashmir and the Northeast, the Indian government is seen battling the earthquake that has reportedly razed the capital of neighbouring Nepal. This quick succession of large-scale natural calamities has highlighted the shortcomings in our disaster management and rehabilitation strategies at the national and state levels.

While the heroic efforts of the Indian Army, relief workers and enthusiastic volunteers in such situations should not be discounted, it is imperative to learn lessons for better execution at present, and preparedness in future.

A lot is often written and said with regards to women's vulnerability during the time of disasters, though what is often overlooked is their role and potential in disaster management and disaster risk reduction. When we look at the gender-specific capacities of women, they can be significant contributors to disaster risk reduction and building resilience. The example of La Masica community that registered no deaths in the wake of the 1998 Hurricane Mitch in Honduras is cited as an attempt to highlight the salient benefits of gender-sensitive disaster management.

The need to mainstream gender within disaster management efforts has roots in the fact that statistically, women are the single largest demographic group worst affected by natural and human-caused disasters.

Additionally, they are also the community requiring most support in the post-disaster environment. As the primary responsibility of caring for the young, the elderly, the sick and those living with disabilities also lies on the shoulders of women, they are to be seen as the prime target group for relief initiatives.

Based on the reports of relief agencies like Red Cross and findings of researchers across the globe, women and children are particularly affected by disasters. In addition to the overall impact of the disaster on the general community, women are uniquely burdened by the breakdown of infrastructure, displacement and isolation, collapse of familial and social support networks. It has been observed that in the post-disaster communities, women are at a greater risk of sexual and domestic violence. The loss of the male heads of household, also the chief bread winners, complemented with livelihood loss also contributes to increasing women's burdens and responsibilities.

A woman's pre-disaster familial responsibilities and roles are magnified and expanded by the onset of a disaster or emergency, with significantly less support and resources for those roles. Women's lack of skills - including literacy, especially in countries with less access to education among women - combined with their lack of experience in the public sphere, makes it difficult for them to engage with relief and emergency response mechanisms. Women are mostly employed within the agricultural and informal sectors, which are often the worst affected by disasters. Therefore, the rates of unemployment among women after a disaster are inordinately high.

In keeping with these specific vulnerabilities, certain practices can be highlighted for a gender-sensitive approach in disaster management.

Close interaction with communities in planning process

Most planning and preparedness for relief efforts typically takes place in bureaucratic surroundings. While research and analysis is certainly a part of this process, the inputs of locals are seldom sought. An inclusive disaster management plan would make a significant difference in times of crisis. It is important to align disaster management with best practices in gender inclusive governance, domestic as well as global. The case of Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) is worth drawing valuable lessons from. SSP was developed as a pilot collaborative effort in 1980 for encouraging women's participation in an existing antipoverty program. It provided a platform to community-based women's groups to interact with local government officials in six districts in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. SSP plays a big role in coordinating and channelising the training provided by different women groups and co-operatives in the field of education, health, construction, sanitation etc. Such training is found to have reduced women's vulnerabilities in emergency situations and the post-disaster scenario. In the Latur and Bhuj earthquakes, the SSP women contributed significantly in repairing and rebuilding infrastructure.

Gender disaggregated assessment

While the basic rule for relief efforts in times of natural disasters is to evacuate "women and children" first, the job does not end there. During the Kashmir and Northeast rescue and rehabilitation operations, sanitary napkins were deemed as "essential supplies" by volunteers and relief agencies. This is an example of mainstreaming gender specific concerns in disaster management. Special attention ought to be paid to women's needs in times of menstruation while considering cultural beliefs during menstruation and women's limited physical ability during this time. In addition to that, focusing on aspects such as easy and safe access to toilets, availability of wheelchairs, private areas for women to change clothes/bathe and special provisions for pregnant and nursing women, is integral to effective disaster management.

Employment of female relief workers

Like in most professions, women are under represented in the field of disaster management and relief efforts. The inclusion of more women in the process would inarguably augment the efficiency of the process. It is worth acknowledging that in India and the rest of the subcontinent, it is not uncommon for certain women to be apprehensive about confiding in or being touched by a male relief worker even in times of crisis. As per a Red Cross representative (name withheld) currently based in New Delhi, many women have inhibitions in sharing bed with strangers at shelters, and therefore pre-disaster evacuation efforts are met with resistance.

Involvement of affected women in relief efforts/ planning

Gender-sensitive disaster management can be best aided by gender inclusive efforts. There is a lot that women could do to aid the process of relief and rehabilitation. For instance, traditional knowledge and skills of women can be used to manage natural resources, aid the injured and sick, prepare community meals, and nurse displaced infants and children during reconstruction and recovery processes. Moreover, with adequate training we can capitalise on the clichéd role of women as emotional nurturer in PTSD scenario in survivors. After the initial phase of relief and rescue operations have been accomplished, the involvement of affected local women in the management of refugee camps, distribution of food, etc could prove to be an asset. These women belong to the affected community and hence, enjoy a degree of trust that relief workers would have to work hard to establish otherwise.

Safety and security

Unfortunately, even the relief camps are not immune to abuse, violence and sexual harassment. Considering physical, geographical and psychological vulnerabilities of displaced women, safety is of prime importance. Secure areas should include: safe sleeping arrangements, adequate lighting and accessible toilets, and choice of safe location for camps. Designating women-only spaces for changing, in times of menstruation, and nursing is also a need which is much ignored but necessary for effective management.

It must also be ensured that relief reaches specific categories: widows, single, female headed households, elderly, disabled et al. Unarguably, in times of disaster, the entire affected community must be aided and re-habilitated with equal urgency. However, it is a sad fact that specific sections of the population may face more vulnerability and difficulty in the rehabilitation process.

Writer

Nishtha Gautam and Vidisha Mishra

Nishtha Gautam is an academic in University of Delhi and Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Vidisha Mishra is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation.

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