When Disasters Hit, Women are Key to Recovery

Disasters have dominated recent headlines: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma flooded communities in the US, an earthquake decimated cities in Central America and floods devastated homes in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. These events affected people’s lives, livelihoods and communities in fundamental ways. As communities begin the often long, challenging and costly process of disaster recovery—and preparation for future disasters—they must not turn a blind eye to women’s needs.

Florida Fish and Wildlife / Creative Commons

Women are often affected by disasters in unique ways, so it is important to ensure that they are specifically considered when planning and implementing disaster relief and recovery. Studies show that while a disaster may affect an entire community, women experience the effects of disasters in different ways from men. Specifically, social conditions that marginalize women before a disaster occurs exacerbate the challenges facing women when a disaster hits. This is particularly salient in developing countries. One study found that more women than men die from natural hazards, and this is directly connected to women’s unequal socioeconomic status. For example, women are less likely than men to be able to swim or climb trees, skills that may be crucial to survival during a disaster. They are often charged with care for children or elderly family members during a disaster, which may limit their ability to evacuate quickly.

In developing countries, and especially in rural communities, disasters often leave women with an increased workload of collecting water and food for the household, and women often must head households without the means or social capital to obtain resources for their families. Women may face limited access to credit, information and relief services, making it even more difficult to recover from disaster losses. While an entire community may be exposed to the same risk, women and men have different levels of vulnerability and access to resources, and therefore require different types of response.

There are several ways relief and response efforts can pay attention to women’s needs and experiences, especially related to security and privacy, following disasters. It is important to ensure that women are able to access relief supplies, sanitation facilities and livelihood support. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) are often perpetrated against women following disasters, and it is important to prevent this from occurring by providing trustworthy and transparent security patrols and ensuring that women are able to report violence. While it is often easy to reduce women’s experiences during crises to being victims, particularly of SGBV, it is vital to address women’s other needs, particularly rebuilding their livelihoods and gaining access to healthcare.

We must also facilitate women’s ability women to be key actors in rebuilding their communities. Women’s skills and perspectives are critical to building safer and more resilient societies. After the upheaval of a disaster, traditional gender roles often change, and institutions can be rebuilt to be more open to women. Recovering from disasters and preparing for future disasters requires addressing agricultural systems, land rights, construction regulations, government response and financial and education systems. This is a long-term process and involves reshaping the systems that are fundamental to people’s livelihoods and relationships. Including women–and considering women’s needs–during disaster recovery provides an opportunity to reshape societies and further open opportunities for women’s participations and leadership. Accordingly, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction argues that ensuring that women are considered and involved in disaster recovery and preparation for future disasters “offers an opportunity for re-examining gender relations in society from different angles and enhancing gender equality in socioeconomic development…[and]…makes it possible for nations and communities to achieve disaster resilience.”

By including women in disaster recovery and preparation for future disasters, communities can become more resilient and have an opportunity to address underlying inequalities, empowering women to be decision-makers and leaders in their communities.

Briana Mawby is the 2015-2017 Hillary Rodham Clinton Research Fellow with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She previously served as a research consultant for the World Bank Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development Thematic Working Group on Environmental Change and Migration. Mawby has also worked at the Georgetown Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service and the Center for Media and Public Affairs. She is a graduate of Georgetown University with an M.A. in conflict resolution, and a specialization in post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding in East and Central Africa and received a certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Crises from the Institute for the Study of International Migration. She completed her B.A. in international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

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