Gender-Informed Disaster Planning & Response

That the impacts of disasters discriminate against certain segments of the population is a topic that has received insufficient attention by both governments and non-governmental agencies involved in relief and reconstruction efforts.

Disasters must be understood within the social, cultural and political contexts in which they occur because the risks and vulnerabilities that individuals face amid disaster are as much a product of their social context as their physical environment. For millions worldwide, it is their vulnerability, determined by a number of social factors such as gender, ethnicity, class, age, and disability, that contribute to disproportionate impact and ultimately whether they survive.

Studies have shown that disasters - whether natural (e.g., earthquakes, floods, drought, desertification, and epidemics?), technological (e.g. fuel, chemical and nuclear accidents), or intentional (e.g., civil war and armed conflicts), result in a range of harms that are gendered, and often those who are most devastated are women and children.1


Displacement

Women constitute the overwhelming proportion of refugee and internally displaced communities.2

By the end of 2010 women and girls made up 47% of refugees and asylum seekers. They constituted half of all IDP's and returnees (former refugees).3


Gendered Vulnerabilities: Women are at increased risk

Risks that women face arise from:

  • Physical exposure
  • Socioeconomic vulnerability
  • Limited capacity to reduce either, especially since women are not involved in disaster planning

These gendered vulnerabilities are essentially consequences of pre-existing structures and social conditions -- the burdens of gender roles, unequal distribution of power, and devaluation of women and girls, all of which existed during "normal times," but are exacerbated during times of disaster.

Pre-Disaster Examples:
In Cambodia, flood-related information and early warning signals - typically communicated through sources such as village authorities through village public address system, radio or television, people visiting or returning to the village from up-stream or near the Mekong River, or other villagers often failed to reach women. CARE International research team determined that, due to the gendered division of labor, 'a number of women said that they often did not hear public address announcements, either because their house was too far away or sheltered from the loudspeakers or that the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, or that they were too busy in the house or out in the fields at the time of announcement… Many women said that even when the radio was on they were usually too busy with domestic tasks to listen, and when the news programs were on they found it difficult to fully concentrate. Many women seemed to use television more as a means to keep children occupied while the carried on with other activities. A number of women said that they had difficulties understanding some of the language used in radio or television news broadcasts.'4

Studies in Bangladesh show that women suffered most following the 1991 cyclone and flood. Among women aged 20-44, the death rate was 71 per 1000, compared to 15 per 1000 for men… In a highly sex segregated society, warning information was transmitted by males to males in public spaces where males congregated on the assumption that this would be communicated to the rest of the family - which by and large did not occur. Those who heard the warning ignored it because cyclones occurring after the 1970 disaster had not caused much devastation. In the ensuing procrastination, women who had comparatively less knowledge about cyclones and were dependent on male decision-making, perished, many with their children, waiting for their husbands to return home and take them to safety.5

After a strong El Niño event, it was discovered that in one Peruvian fishing village, warnings went just to those perceived to be directly affected - the fishermen (all male) - so they knew in advance that the fishing would be poor to non-existent for the next several months. However, this information was not conveyed to the women whose responsibility it was to manage household budgets. With this information women could have budgeted differently and prevented disaster-induced hardship.6

Post-Disaster Examples:
Loss of husbands and/or parents, decimation of economic livelihoods (agricultural and informal sectors where women dominate are often the worst hit and least able to recover from the effects of disasters), and dramatically expanded care-giving duties following disaster leave women burdened with even greater responsibilities in exceptionally difficult conditions and inadequate facilities. Post-disaster 'flight of men' is well documented, but migration in is rarely an option for women due to their domestic responsibilities. As a result, the number of female-headed households significantly increases after the occurrence of disasters leaving women alone with an increased burden of productive and reproductive roles, economic and domestic tasks. Amongst others, this has been observed in rural Bangladesh where numerous men abandoned their wives and families in the post-disaster period. As a result, women are vulnerable to impoverishment, forced marriage, labor exploitation and trafficking.7

As disaster experts, practitioners, and policy-makers calculate how best national and international communities should respond to such emergencies, women are rarely included. This follows from the low representation of women in emergency management organizations and professions internationally, and these male-dominated recovery groups seeing disasters 'through the eyes of men' and organizing relief efforts in a manner that does not take gender differences and women's particular needs, concerns, and their potential for contribution during disaster preparedness, response and reconstruction into consideration. For example, sanitary napkins, contraceptives and counseling services for psychological distress and domestic violence are rarely available in emergency situations; there exists male bias in identifying the channels through which information is provided; and the dearth of data on the lives of girls and women before, during and after disaster.


  1. World Health Organization, Department of Gender, Women and Health. (2005) "Gender considerations in disaster assessment." http://www.who.int/entity/gender/gwhdisasterassessment2.pdf
  2. Women constitute the overwhelming proportion of refugees displaced by war: of the more than 42 million people displaced by war, approximately eighty percent are women, children, and youth. Women's Refugee Commission. (2009) "Refugee Girls: The Invisible Faces of War." http://www.womensrefugeecommission.org/images/stories/ref_girls_FINAL.pdf
  3. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "2010 Global Trends: Refugees Asylum Seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons." http://www.unhcr.org/4dfa11499.html
  4. CARE International. (2002) "Flood Impact on Women & Girls in Prey Veng Province, Cambodia." http://www.adpc.net/pdr-sea/publications/FLdWG%20Flood.pdf
  5. Baden, S., A.M.Goetz, C. Green and M. Guhathakurta. (1994) "Bangladesh cyclone response fails to meet women's needs." Bridge Report No. 26: Background Paper on Gender Issues in Bangladesh. August 1994.
  6. Cheryl Anderson, University of Hawaii Social Science Research Institute, USA. Posted 11 October 2001 to United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women online forum on "Gender equality, environmental management and natural disaster mitigation."
  7. World Health Organization. (2002) Gender and Health in Disasters. http://www.who.int/gender/other_health/en/genderdisasters.pdf
    Neumayer, Eric/Pluemper, Thomas, The Gendered Nature of Natural Disaster: The Impact of Catastrophic Events on the Gendered Gap in Life Expectancy, 1981-2002, in: Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 97, No.3, 2002, pp. 551-566.

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Types of Gender-Based Violence Common to Disasters

  1. Sexual violence has become a weapon of war - Rwanda, DRC, Croatia;
  2. Sexual violence in natural disasters: rape, gang rape, molestation in the course of unsupervised rescue operations and in temporary shelters - Sri Lanka, Indonesia after tsunami; New Orleans; Haiti;
  3. Trafficking - Bem earthquake, Iran (2004);
  4. Forced marriage of young girls to old men to alleviate family poverty;
  5. Domestic violence: Increased DV post-conflict: East Timor\ Timor L'Est as fighters came back home, they reasserted their control over women who had managed whilst they were gone - re-installation of patriarchy;
  6. Domestic violence and separated women: Increased endangerment to battered women as perpetrators are released, because jails aren't functioning;
  7. Coercive control - example of Vietnamese fisherman on U.S. Gulf coast;
  8. Health and mental health consequences - HIV/AIDS; unwanted pregnancies; rejection by family/partners of babies born of rape, victim-blaming;
  9. In addition to sexual predation against women, young girls and children are also victimized and can get overlooked.

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Nexus of Harms and Recommendations to Mitigate Them

Nexus of predation, vulnerability, complicity of state and non-state/family actors increases gendered harms.
Do not underestimate the predatory behavior of men even in non-disasters; e.g., midwives stopped going to homes at night to deliver babies because they were getting raped in the home by the pregnant woman's partner.

  1. Collusion of local authorities - they may be corrupt, or do nothing, or participate in or facilitate perpetration.
    Recommendation: In pre-disaster planning, ensure a system to lodge complaints.
  2. Since danger in the camps and outside the camps (e.g., going to collect firewood) is high, there are repeated rapes and gang rapes.
    Recommendation: Organize camp residents into safety patrols.
  3. Survival sex makes women and their kids more vulnerable - they may barter sex for food, clothes for their kids - and become targeted for rape.
    Recommendation: Ensure a single mother's needs are assessed properly.
  4. In general, women are not high on the food hierarchy. In IDP and refugee camps, food and other supplies are distributed based on ration cards which are often in the name of the male head of household, giving an abusive man increased power and a women increased dependence.
    Recommendation: Develop equitable distribution system, put 2 names on ration card.
  5. Medicine distribution to women is often not a priority.
    Recommendation: Provide for women's health needs - contraception, sanitary pads, a place to wash and dry menstruation rags. (In Bangladesh, UTIs increased because women couldn't do this.)
  6. Disaster zones attract traffickers who pick up kids, especially in the early chaos, because people are lost and separated from their families. They claim to be the kids' relatives who can take care of the kids until they are re-united with their parents. These kids are usually quickly taken out of the country and sold for sex or manual work. This happened after the Bem earthquake in Iran.
    Recommendation: Plan ahead for a system of re-uniting families following a disaster.
    Recommendation: Keep all children together and do not release them immediately.
  7. Family complicity can be high, resorting to the quid pro quo strategy- a rape can be used by the victim's family to leverage something from the perpetrator that the family needs for survival, or to settle an old debt, or acquire drugs or medicines, etc. in exchange for not doing anything to him.
    Recommendation: Have equivalent of women's police station.
  8. Convergence of family, community and state interests in silencing reports of gender-based violence.
    Recommendation: Devise forms and system to report gender violence in post-disaster camps/contexts.
    Recommendation: Train women to take and file complaints.

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Geopolitics of Disasters

Disasters are not only powerful physical events but complex social experiences for individuals, households and communities.

Some provocative questions to consider:

  1. Is climate chaos a natural or man made disaster?
  2. Is financial collapse a disaster?: Are its victims the bankers? When a disaster is not localized, what are the globalized ramifications?
  3. Katrina hurricane in the U.S.: Was the flooding caused by the storm or because the levies failed because they were poorly constructed?
  4. Notice how first world environmental disasters get so much attention? Katrina, BP oil spill, Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska...
  5. ...but in the Niger Delta, the Ogoni and the ecosystem are systematically damaged by oil spills that every year total the BP oil spill in U.S.; to say nothing of the horrible, carelessly applied chemicals used to clean it up; how those toxic chemicals are in turn not cleaned up; and the political persecution of the Ogoni.

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Being Gender-Informed

So what does it mean to use a gender-informed approach?

  • It means focusing on women's terrific risk management capacities and their coping skills to involve them in disaster planning and disaster response, and therefore challenge the view that they are helpless victims.
  • It means recognizing that male socialization inhibits help-seeking behavior and women are the ones arranging for them to get help; or guiding helpers to where services are needed.
  • It means utilizing women's unique knowledge, skills and strengths to manage difficulties and hardships. They rise up despite and because of their vulnerabilities.

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Other Practical Recommendations

  1. Develop and practice a family evacuation and communication plan to [a] meet up [b] call (will cell towers function?) [c] stay where you are.
  2. Evacuation is very traumatic. Establish evacuation plan for disabled, deaf, elderly, or for security reasons. Example: Syria: Iraqi refugees fled their country, then as battered women they left their homes, then for security reasons they had to evacuate their shelter and move to another site.
  3. Train advocates to be authoritative, and make disaster workers listen to them.
  4. Have physical tools you'll need: tools, heavy gloves, chain-saw (know how to use it), ladders, supplies.
  5. Prepare workplace to support special post-disaster needs. Example Manager in a state disaster relief agency brought in trailers for on-site child and dependant care for staff who were impacted by disaster and also needed to be at work to assist others.
  6. Prepare community to respond: Berkeley's CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams); take classes, e.g., learn to use fire hose, direct first responders to high-problem cases, light search and rescue, etc.
  7. Prepare for some of the psychological reactions: loss, anger, grief, powerlessness, helplessness, trauma, shock, trauma at other people's injuries
  8. Disaster workers can facilitate, post-emergency access to resources, guide battered women through bureaucracy.
  9. Have fundraising structures for victims of gender-based violence: international or regional advocate allies can work with funders to set up separate accounts to receive and disburse donations for victims.

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Additional Resources

Special Collection: Disaster and Emergency Preparedness and Response
Published by VAWnet, The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women.
www.vawnet.org/special-collections/DisasterPrep.php
Included in this collection are selected materials and resources -- many gender-informed -- that can be used by domestic and sexual violence organizations to increase their preparedness for and response to major disasters and emergencies. Also included is information developed for victims/survivors of domestic and sexual violence who are concurrently coping with trauma and stress after a natural disaster or major crisis. Special attention has been given to the issues faced by children in these situations. Note: Materials on this website focuses on disaster response in the U.S.

Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response (OHSEPR), Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
www.acf.hhs.gov/ohsepr/index.html
The Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response (OHSEPR) provides leadership in human services preparedness and response and to promote the self-sufficiency of individuals, families, and special needs populations prior to, during and after disasters.

Hesperian Health Guides
hesperian.org
Hesperian Health Guides is a health information and health education source that develops and distributes health materials that provide knowledge for action, and inspire action for health. Its guides are designed in partnership with and for use by community health workers and others in poor and marginalized communities around the world to prevent and cure disease, and to challenge the social injustices that cause poor health. Materials are easy to read, medically accurate, and richly illustrated. Topics span from women's health, children, disabilities, dentistry, health education, HIV, to environmental health, and many publications are available in over 80 languages. In cases of emergency or natural disaster, the two chapters listed below are especially pertinent.

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