Missing Voices and a New Approach to Community Research

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Though marginalised gender groups are more vulnerable to the risks of disasters their experiences are rarely included in research. Practical Action has pioneered new approaches to include and highlight these missing voices while researching flood early warning systems in Nepal and Peru.

New Points of Departure

In July, Dealing with Disasters, the UK Alliance for Disaster Research, Disasters Research Group and UK Collaborative for Development Research came together at Northumbria University to hold an international conference. Building on the progress made in the recent United Nations Global Platform 2019 and in anticipation of the forthcoming Climate Summit it focused on ‘New Points of Departure in Transitioning Disaster Reduction and Sustainability Challenges’.

For people and communities to survive and thrive in the face of disaster threats and sustainability challenges, new points of departure in our approach to science, technology, political will and behaviour are vital – and increasingly urgent.

Practical Action’s Sarah Brown and Dr Mirianna Budimir went to the conference and shared innovative research methods and new findings developed in recent work carried out through the Practical Action’s research, examining how effective flood early warning systems are for women and marginalised gender groups in Nepal and Peru.

Gender and disaster risk vulnerability

Vulnerability to disaster risk is shaped by gender inequality, gender norms and social marginalisation. It’s necessary to understand how gender and disaster risk are related. Unfortunately, gender is often considered in a way which is too simplistic: often, “women” are referred to as a homogenous group, failing to consider the diversity of identities and experiences which affect vulnerability to, and ability to cope with, disasters.

For example, a woman from a marginalised ethnic or religious group who has only limited education and literacy, and a woman who is financially secure and highly educated, will have very different perspectives, resources, and priorities to consider in the event of a flood.

Equally, conversations about gender which fail to include people with LGBT+ identities further exclude and marginalise individuals who often experience significant discrimination which violates their human rights, in day to day life as well as in a disaster setting.

Why are these voices missing?

Our Missing Voices report takes an intersectional approach, supporting the more traditional research approaches we used in our study on Gender Transformative Early Warning Systems, with targeted interviews to highlight the experiences of women whose voices we hadn’t heard.

Often, when conducting surveys in communities, we miss out on these perspectives. The platforms which are the gateway to the community, such as local committees and cooperatives, are inaccessible to people who are physically or socially marginalised. People who are unable to afford membership, or travel to attend an interview, or people whose identities or status mean that they are not welcomed or supported to participate, are excluded. Individuals may also be reluctant to participate in a group discussion, or have a one-to-one interview in their home, because of the scrutiny they could receive from their neighbours and other community members.

Our innovative approach

We addressed these challenges by piloting a new approach to research. We started by talking to specialist community-based organisations who worked with, knew, and were trusted by marginalised communities. These organisations were able to give us insight into the issues facing specific groups, and introduce us to people they knew would be willing to speak with us. These individuals then referred us to their peers, allowing us to build on existing relationships.

To conduct the interviews, rather than visiting people’s homes and drawing unwanted attention to them, we spoke to them over the phone, in some cases using mobile phones provided to them via the community-based organisations. This approach meant that people were able to speak to us at times and places convenient for them, and without being inhibited by other household members or neighbours.

In this way, we were able to hear candid and detailed accounts, often about subjects which, due to their sensitivity, we had not heard about in wider community group discussions, such as issues of gender-based violence and menstrual hygiene in a disaster setting.

This “Missing Voices” approach has resulted in a much more nuanced understanding of how different gender groups experience floods and flood early warning systems. The full report, with first-person accounts, is available here, and we are continuing to explore ways to develop early warning systems which are effective to the last mile.

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