Many risk drivers are created by development choices at global or national levels, but all are manifested at the local level, so local people must be central to risk reduction practice. But it is important to recognise that in these communities it is the disabled, elderly, women and girls who are the most at risk. For example, women accounted for 61% of fatalities caused by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, 70-80% in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 91% in the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh[i]
But women often have the weakest voice and the least opportunity or face restrictions of their voice being heard or listened to, but this shouldn’t be the case when they make up half of the adult population. Social norms around gender mean that women’s circumstances, for instance clothing and level of mobility, affect their ability to respond to sudden events. Exclusion means that women remain overlooked, resulting in preparedness and response measures that ignore their particular needs and in the worst cases actually exacerbate their risk. Unless gender equality is realised, planning will continue to add additional weight to women’s multiple burdens as care givers.
The critical need to address gender differences in development is well established and has been acknowledged globally at the highest levels, although there is still a long way to go to achieve these lofty aspirations. This was best articulated by the women’s major group at Sendai, who commented that “…however, women are often included together with girls and marginalized groups, furthering the ‘victim’ paradigm; the term ‘gender equality’ does not appear in the text, nor is there a reference to women’s human rights”[ii].
There is nothing natural about disasters, disasters occur when development goes wrong. Disasters often highlight existing gender based imbalances and inequalities in societies; reflecting vulnerabilities as well as capacities embedded in the social systems and in the economic context of development. It is therefore paramount that responsible development is inclusive development, that women are central to development efforts, and challenge existing practices and norms so that we all #Pushforprogress.
Practical Actions Disaster Risk Reduction programme acknowledges the central role of women in disaster risk reduction; that women and girls – like men and boys – possess skills and capacity to prepare for, respond to and recover from crisis, and to manage risk and build resilience over the longer term.
In Bangladesh one of the biggest challenges during the annual flood season is access to clean water. One way to provide clean water in spite of flooding is the construction of raised plinth tube wells allowing families to stay at home, and saving them the inconvenience to relocate. In discussions with communities women report psychological benefits of not being compelled to relocate and the assurance that the water supply they are using is unlikely to cause sickness to their family.
But local decisions are decided by the Community Based Organisation, and getting women onto these bodies is vital. It is important that the voice of half of the community is heard in the decision making process. The CBO will decide on the location of improved raised plinth wells, so women must have a voice to ensure that they are located where women feel comfortable accessing them. In our flood resilience project in Sirajganj we have focussed on capacity building of CBO’s and of 16 CBOs established so far women lead seven.
Therefore, gender equality is not a choice but an imperative. At Practical Action to ensure that we are true to this principle, we recognise that disaster risk reduction must be inclusive. We need to continually strengthen the gender skills and gender diversity across our teams. We need to strengthen the quality of our M&E work, with gendered outcomes identified from the beginning and data disaggregated by gender from the outset. This will not only help us better understand what works in different contexts and respond to these in the future, but deliver comprehensive DRR that changes systems and sets in place preparation, prevention and transformations that deliver resilience for all.