Integrating Gender Equality into Disaster Risk Management
Disaster Risk Management (DRM) is a social process whose aim is to prevent, reduce and permanently control risk factors in society. This objective is accomplished through the existence of conditions of enhanced safety and resilience in the population.
Some years ago, disasters were regarded as sudden events whose severity or level of damage was solely determined by the event that triggered them. There was confusion between the physical detonating event (such as a hurricane, the eruption of a volcano, a virus, or a torrential downpour) and the disaster, which is determined by the vulnerability of the affected community and its capacity to respond.
Nowadays, the focus is no longer only on the physical event. The social and economic conditions of the community are key determinants of the risk scenario in our communities. Hurricanes hitting a coral reef or a storm in the middle of the sea do not qualify as disasters. We always talk about disasters when there is an affected community.
Both risk and disasters are social constructs. They are not natural events or divine punishments against which we cannot fight. Disasters are unresolved problems of development that we must address. Thus, when a disaster occurs, the political and social debt that we must take care of becomes evident. It is through public policies that we can prevent these scenarios.
Urban development policies, inclusive economic policies and social programmes can reduce the vulnerability of communities. For example, rapid and unplanned urbanisation leads to the settlement of large numbers of poor and socially excluded people in unsafe places, thus creating new risk scenarios.
It is important to realise that nature does not punish and that disasters are not impossible events to predict and manage. It must always be kept in mind that the main cause of these disasters is the structural inequality of an unfair economic system. Hence, there is no predetermined fatalism. On the contrary, the scale of the impacts is the responsibility of the governance.
Ideally, governments and communities should plan and implement actions to respond to risk conditions through safe development strategies. Development management instruments are also key elements of DRM, e.g. development plans, land-use regulations, urban and rural planning, and public investment, among others.
Risk reduction requires political and social treatment to be placed high on the public agenda. This commitment involves shared responsibilities among development stakeholders and governments must take the lead in urgent strategic actions.
In an unfair world, the consequences are also unfair
Although a threat can have the same intensity in a given territory, its impacts are diverse. For example, it is not the same to experience an earthquake of the same intensity in an adobe house as in an earthquake-resistant construction. The physical event affects the community according to its pre-existing conditions.
Likewise, the same event will be different for people from diverse economic, social, gender, ethnic or age backgrounds. Various international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) agree that in many events women have been the main victims of disasters.
Risk analysis and planning for future action entails understanding that the social fabric is not homogeneous and that it is necessary to take into account the characteristics and specific features of each condition. This difference is called differentiated vulnerability.
Intersectionality is the feminist strategy that can be used to make differentiated vulnerabilities visible to address them. The implementation of this approach in DRM processes may lead to progress in all the organizational lines of action. In governance processes, it allows for a comprehensive approach to the causality of risk and the identification of the gaps that at the source of the most profound inequalities.
In most cases, risk analyses at the local level do not accurately represent the different ways in which vulnerability is expressed. Thus, inexact knowledge of the specific conditions of people within the community undermines the quality of interventions that are made in terms of prevention, preparation, and response. What is not well known cannot be well resolved.
The causes of risk are not merely based on conditions of exclusion, lack of access to opportunities and deteriorating social and economic conditions. Rather, they are also differentiated for women.
Governments have the responsibility to reach out to, protect and empower women and girls alike. In turn, everybody should break down gender stereotypes and acknowledge women's capabilities to foster processes that promote equality.
In the case of women in particular, these are some of the factors of inequality they face when we talk about differentiated vulnerability in DRM:
● Lower income. The digital divide, limited access to education, financial resources such as credit, savings or pensions, or poor access to land, water, equipment, and technology, all have a direct impact on women's ability to respond effectively in the event of an emergency situation.
● Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding during the emergency without proper care. Women have specific needs not only in terms of their social roles, but also because pregnancy, breastfeeding and menstruation increase the need for specialised interventions. This becomes particularly visible in shelters and refugee centres, where awareness-raising is also required to respond to the needs of LGBTIQ+ people.
● Risk of gender-based violence. During and after a disaster, women are more likely to be the victims of domestic or sexual violence.
● Limited access to power and decision-making structures at home, in the community and in political institutions. Lack of women's participation in decision-making entails that they are left out of the risk prevention process and hence their specific needs are not taken into account.
It is always the right time to invest in and implement better preventive and resilient processes. It is never too late, and this may be the time to make the necessary changes to properly allocate public investment and bridge pre-existing gender gaps. Effective action can make the difference in averting the next disaster.
In turn, an effective disaster risk reduction process is necessarily participatory, with an enhanced role for local players and leaders in the analysis, development and design of strategies, decision-making and implementation of the measures required. This also involves children, the elderly and the disabled.
The implementation of gender-sensitive programmes can help to challenge deep-seated prejudices against women. Conversely, if women and girls are left out of disaster planning or risk reduction measures, their talents, skills, and knowledge will be wasted, and it will be less likely to achieve more egalitarian societies.
Constanza Schmipp is a political scientist, a consultant to the World Bank on Disaster Risk Management and the co-founder of RIGEN, a feminist collective that works on gender-based disaster risk management from an intersectional perspective. She has worked for organisations in African and Central American countries such as Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama.