The Role of Women in Disaster Risk Reduction

Women are disproportionately impacted by disasters but they are rarely included in disaster planning. That must change.

(3BL Media/Justmeans) -- On February 26, 1852, the HMS Birkenhead struck rocks off the coast of South Africa. There weren't enough lifeboats for the 643 people aboard, and Captain Robert Salmond immediately ordered the wives and children to board them while the men remained to try to save the ship. This act of chivalry would become a standard maritime code of conduct summed up by the famous phrase, "Women and children first." 
And while there is logic behind it, this concept has helped to ingrain the notion that in times of crisis, women are primarily the helpless, not the helpers. As the #HerDay2015 Twitter discussions commemorating International Women's Day come to a close, just as the Third UN Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction starts in Sendai, Japan, it seems an appropriate time to consider an important question: What is the role of women in reducing the risk of disaster?
Disaster sociologists Elaine Enarson and Betty Hearn Morrow argue in their book, The Gendered Terrain of Disaster, that a gendered disaster analysis "builds on women's hard-won knowledge":
"Filipina mothers in evacuation centers, like African-American grandmothers raising youngsters in Miami's public housing, Scottish women starting over after flood, and homeless women in Bangladesh understand how class, race, and gender constrain their lives. They have experienced first-hand the gender politics of disaster relief. Men who have lost daughters, wives, or mothers to earthquake or cyclone have learned, to their sorrow, not only about the risks of insecure housing or the inadequacy of warning systems, but how taken-for-granted expectations about 'women's place' put loved ones in dangerous space. In the process of coming into womanhood, girls learn practical strategies for disaster preparedness and crisis management. The legacy of their mothers and grandmothers—in impoverished peasant societies and on the fringes of the world's great cities, but also among the new American homeless, farm migrants, and economically marginal families—is simply how to survive the relentless crises of everyday life."{1}
Advancing a gendered disaster analysis will help to eliminate two incorrect assumptions in traditional emergency management thinking: 1) that non-governmental forms of social organization, many of which are led by women, such as families and community-based groups, are ineffectual in crisis situations; and 2) that during disasters women are passive victims. Perhaps these assumptions—which have kept female voices and female-specific knowledge outside of the disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction (DRR) discussions—have contributed to the fact that women are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters.
Rooted in military strategy, conventional emergency planning is often described in terms of the "triple C's": chaos, command and control. In this traditional view, the assumed state during an emergency situation can be characterized as chaos, which can only be eliminated by command and control.{2}
A gendered approach might add another "C": community. This kind of "bottom-up" planning is more inclusive and participatory than the "top-down" strategy that dominates traditional disaster risk reduction planning.
"Women play an important role in the process," said Rebecca Zorn, Disaster Risk Management Specialist for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), who spent 18 months in Laos training officials in community-based disaster risk reduction. During this time, she worked with the Village Disaster Management Committee (VDMC), which was set up by the UNDP and the Laotian government to design an early warning system, disseminate disaster preparedness information and plan disaster risk reduction activities.{3}
"We’ve noticed that many women in our VDMCs are especially proactive," said Zorn. "They understand the consequences disasters have on their villages and the potential long term impacts, and they really want to make a difference for the future of their children and their communities."
"Women are more affected [by disasters] than men because they need to take care of the children, as well as their garden and food for the family," said VDMC member Bounta Nantavong. "Also they worry about the health of everyone in the family. For them, this makes the impact more difficult after a disaster."{4}
In 2007, scientists from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, studied the effects of including indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea as active participants in determining strategies for dealing with environmental hazards. They argued that, while participatory techniques to understand how local people handle environmental-based disasters were "increasingly used in collaboration with communities to facilitate change within a development context, rarely are they used as a research methodology within disaster risk reduction."{5} They found that the involvement of the whole community, and specifically the inclusion of women, was an advantage of the participatory technique:
"Whereas non-participatory approaches can result in participants feeling used or exploited, an advantage of participatory approaches through 'guided discovery' is that they foster a sense of 'ownership', both through the process of producing data and the data themselves and by extension a sense of empowerment through increased self-efficacy. This tends to bring communities closer together by fostering collaboration (closer ties—especially between men and women, or at least between the communities and outsiders) and encouraging them to listen to and consider all opinions as well as highlighting advantages of doing so. In addition, participatory techniques used to guide participants’ discovery are powerful problem-solving tools that may assist in the future when making decisions."{6}
"Without the full participation and contribution of women in decision-making and leadership, real community resilience to climate change and disasters simply cannot be achieved," said Sálvano Briceño, former Director of the Secretariat of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. "In too many places, women are still marginalized from community discussions about development planning.{7}
That "sense of empowerment through increased self-efficacy" is a theme that overlaps both International Women's Day and the Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. That sense of empowerment can be engendered by advancing issues such as girls' education, women's rights, community development and financial inclusion through microenterprise and microfinance.
One excellent example is the Women Agents of Change program offered at community centers run by the non-profit humanitarian organization Children International. In this three-stage program, mothers attend a year-long course studying gender equality, women’s rights, self-esteem and violence. In stage two, they receive leadership training and an opportunity to coach children in sports. In the third year, they develop micro-enterprise projects.
"I saw in the training a good way to do all those things that I like and to learn more," said Alejandra, a mother from Jalisco, Mexico, who launched a sewing business after completing the program. "I decided to start a productive project, because I wanted to improve the condition of life of my family, especially my children.”{8}
By becoming successful leaders, coaches and economic drivers, the women who complete this program become more integral to the growth of their communities and consequently, their voices earn more respect not only in disaster risk reduction discussions, but when disaster strikes. Rather than seen as "helpless" during an emergency situation, they are seen as "helpers."
Local women were the "change agents" critical to the success of a water-related disaster risk reduction project completed in rural Nepal. With funding from the Disaster Risk Reduction Initiative – Water (DRRI-Water) of Xylem Watermark, the corporate citizenship and social investment program of global water technology provider Xylem Inc. (NYSE:XYL), a global water technology provider, the non-profit international development organization Mercy Corps worked with seven high-risk communities in the Kanchanpur district of western Nepal to address a range of water-related risks, from effective sanitation to flood control.
In many families, both in the developed and developing worlds, the responsibility of healthcare often falls in the hands of women. In the small Nepalese village of Tilki, home to 53 families, it is no different. There, Mercy Corps helped a local women's group tackle hygiene and sanitation.
“I built a pit latrine and made my family members use it," said 23-year-old Tika Devi Chaudhari, who decided to take action after learning how open defecation puts her community’s health at risk. “As a result, I have become so much more motivated to stay involved." The latrine that Tika built is just the second in her community.{9}
"The involvement of women and young community members is a key to the success of this project," said Michael Fields, Director of Xylem Watermark. "They are eager to embrace new ideas, can help influence elders to change long-held practices that will lead to improved health in the community, and will reduce community’s vulnerability to seasonal hazards like flooding."{10}{11}
In recent years, Xylem Watermark has supported disaster risk reduction projects in China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Tajikistan. Proactively preparing for water-related emergencies before they happen, these DRR initiatives have included erecting engineering barriers along river banks, building bridges to evacuate flood-prone areas floodplain management. Women are key players in these initiatives.
The Third Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction is the first of four landmark meetings in a particularly critical year for the United Nations, which is charged with setting the global development and climate agenda at several major international events. After Sendai, delegates will go to Addis Ababa in July to renew global development financing. In September, the UN will host a special summit for the adoption of a global sustainability agenda in New York. Then it's on to Paris in December to adopt a universal text on climate change.
And while all these high level talks go on, change can be witnessed across the globe in the lives of everyday women, driven to change their lives as well as the lives of their families and the communities in which they live. A little over 2,000 miles south of Sendai, across the South China Sea, is Manila, the bustling capital of the Philippines. And there, in a large company, works Mary Rose, a 20-year-old Filipina who learned welding and got a welding job through Children International's Into Employment initiative. She is one of only eight female welders in the firm, which employs a total of 200 welders.
"A determined woman can do everything a man can do," said Mary Rose, adding that her experience with Children International "confirmed my belief that girls can do what boys can do.”{12}
One of the meetings on the agenda at the Sendai conference is entitled "Mobilizing Women’s Leadership in DRR." Perhaps attendees should ask Mary Rose her thoughts about disaster risk reduction. After all, a sturdy infrastructure—fundamental to any sound DRR strategy—requires the talents of a good welder. And it's quite possible that if she had been on board when disaster struck the HMS Birkenhead—one of the first iron-hulled ships built for the British Royal Navy—Captain Salmond might have said, "Women and children first—except for Mary Rose."
1. Elaine Enarson and Betty Hearn Morrow. The Gendered Terrain of Disaster. Santa Barbara: Praeger/Greenwood, 1998. p. 225.
2. Russell R. Dynes. Community Emergency Planning: False Assumptions and Inappropriate Analogies. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. August 1994, Vol. 12. pp. 142.
3. Rebecca Zorn. Women Have a Role in Disaster Risk Reduction. United Nations Development Programme. March 9, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015.
4. Ibid.
5. Jessica Mercer et. al. Reflections on use of participatory research for disaster risk reduction. Area. Vol. 40, No. 2. p. 173.
6. Ibid, p. 179.
7. Sálvano Briceño. Gender Perspectives: Integrating Disaster Risk Reduction into Climate Change Adaptation - Good Practices and Lessons Learned. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Secretariat. 2008. p. iii.
8. Lindsey Quinn. Sew Awesome! Children International. January 1, 2014. Accessed March 12, 2015.
9. Michael Fields. Story of Impact: Community Women’s Groups in Nepal Champion Sanitation and Hygiene Improvement. Xylem Watermark. August 27, 2012. Accessed March 12, 2015
10. Ibid.
11. For more on Xylem Watermark's partnership with Mercy Corps, see my exclusive interview at
12. Deron Denton. Separate but Equal: Escaping an Island of Poverty. Children International. March 31, 2014. Accessed March 12, 2015.
image: The home of Cleopa Itang, 62, was badly damaged by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November 2013. Cleopa shares her home with three teenage grandchildren. Copyright 2013 Jon Warren/World Vision.