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FEATURE: Learning lessons from Manatí’s resilient women


A project in Colombia is investigating how women were affected by devastating floods in 2010 and 2011. The hope is to pass on knowledge about how they reacted and coped, to help other communities prepare for similar disasters. By Beatrice Mosello (CDKN’s Project Officer), Samir Eljagh and Eliana Sanandres Campis (Researchers at Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla, Colombia)

I have 5 children, all of them suffered the flooding with me; I didn’t pick up anything, just picked up my children.” (Manatí flood survivor)

Every natural disaster causes obvious physical damage to communities’ inhabitants and infrastructure. But many disasters also leave important psychological effects on people that tend to be much less visible, and are therefore often overlooked. Being exposed to a natural disaster can be so traumatic that it affects how individuals see the world and their future. It can trigger a great number of physical, behavioral, cognitive and emotional reactions.

The psychological impacts of disasters manifest themselves differently among men and women, boys and girls. This is because they have distinct physical vulnerabilities that shape their ability to recover. Experts in the fields of disaster risk management have documented the ‘special’ vulnerabilities of women in emergency situations. On average, disasters and their subsequent impacts kill more women than men. Men’s and women’s experiences of disasters can be affected by gender-related patterns of access and control over resources, as well as by their typical roles and responsibilities (Enarson and Morrow. eds., 1998) and different experiences of personal safety and security.

This situation represents an opportunity to investigate the reasons for the imbalance and to introduce social change and development, aimed at reducing some of the gender-specific impacts of climate disasters and their psychological consequences. It is possible that measures to combat gender-based discrimination and inequality could build women’s and girls’ resilience to climate disasters.

The Universidad Del Norte, based in Barranquilla, Colombia, is embracing this opportunity with its project Growing up in adversity: resilience in families affected by the winter. Funded by CDKN, the project is investigating the coping strategies that communities develop when threatened by natural disasters. The hope is to use the findings to improve people’s psychological resilience to face similar events in the future.

Coping with the aftermath of floods

The project team has worked for 18 months in the municipality of Manatí, in the Department of Atlántico. There, between 2010 and 2011, 3,893,087 Colombians were victims of devastating floods caused by a particularly harsh rainy season. Hundreds of houses were destroyed by a breach in El Canal Del Qique. The water carried away buildings, their inhabitants, personal belongings and the source of people’s livelihoods.

According to the National Register of Flood Victims, flooding in Manatí affected 5,733 women. They faced the arduous task of having to reconstruct not only their houses, but their entire lives, in a Manatí they could no longer recognise. This meant searching for new livelihoods and new stability, while mourning for what was lost forever. While coping with their new realities, they had to continue with domestic responsibilities such as caring for children, the elderly and disabled people.

Three years after the flood of winter 2010, Universidad del Norte’s research team set out to identify a suitable model of care for 90 families displaced by the flood. The idea was to find ways to boost the overall health of the flood survivors and strengthen the fabric of their communities as a strategy for preventing and mitigating the impacts of future disasters. These findings could then inform public policies in communities threatened by similar events.

The project carried out various activities targeted to women and children in the community. The project team, composed of clinical psychologists and facilitators, conducted interviews, held focus groups and community workshops, visited people’s homes and set up an SMS multimedia alert system for families. The aim of using these different approaches was to determine the most effective strategy for promoting resilient attitudes and behaviour.

During the home visits, the researchers held conversations with families to reflect on personal levels of resilience. They began by encouraging them to analyse how the disaster had affected their everyday lives, and then moved on to helping them understand how they coped with these changes. Meanwhile, the workshops involved the entire community. In these, every participant was recognised as the leading actor in his or her life and, as such, was encouraged to share personal visions, knowledge and dreams with the others.

The researchers used these discussions to construct webs showing relationships, cooperation, teamwork and exchange. These were developed further to show networks of reciprocity and solidarity within the community. The networks were used to help order social relations in response to the new conditions of life in the temporary houses, and promote reconciliation if, and when, conflicts arose in Manatí.

Combining facilitation with the use of mass media technologies, the text message alert system was introduced to encourage people to adopt more resilient attitudes to climate change by keeping them constantly connected. The combination of the conversations, workshops and use of text messaging has helped to reduce the psychological impact of the flood, strengthen existing social support networks and improve relationships within the community.

Living with a new reality

Two years on from the tragedy, families still live in temporary houses made of tin. The Caribbean sun transforms these refuges into boiling ovens, so people spend most of their time outside. Women, men, the elders and children now all inhabit the same spaces; women cook vegetables, eggs and chickens in the communal kitchen; water is taken from three grey tanks located at the edge of the camp; everyone is responsible for the gardens and the animals; and toilets are divided between men and women, but otherwise shared by the entire village.

Inevitably, the tragedy has brought about new social relations and daily routines. Former enemies now sometimes find themselves living under the same roof. Many men have left to look for jobs in cities, leaving women in control of family households and with increased responsibilities for children and the elderly. Divorce rates have risen and so have episodes of rape and sexual violence.

Notwithstanding these undeniable challenges and difficulties, the project’s results show people have adapted to their new environment, and to the new rules of the community of which they are a part. The women, who now constitute the majority of the population in Manatí, have demonstrated that they have the social skills required to function adaptively in the conditions of overcrowding and lack of privacy that characterise the camp where they now live.

The Growing up in adversity project has, therefore, identified the development of social skills and self-regulation as key elements when adapting to such a new way of life. Among the project’s outcomes, it has successfully: consolidated the group identity in the community; improved interaction between the inhabitants of the provisional refuges; suggested alternative ways of resolving conflicts; and taught the Manatí people to identify common problems and mobilise a response to them.

At the workshops, Manatí’s women expressed a sense of abandonment and neglect; most of them had lost confidence in the institutions that stopped caring about them soon after the 2010 tragedy struck. Today, they have organised themselves into teams, which can mobilise in a preventive way if warned of a potential climate-related extreme event. Some of them also work closely with the political authorities to raise awareness about their situation and lobby for a solid response to future disasters.

Reducing women’s risk from disasters

The women’s experiences highlight the importance of bringing a gender perspective to addressing the physical and the psychological impacts of natural disasters. The findings suggest that research and data should be disaggregated by sex. Also an open dialogue should be established within communities, and between communities and national or subnational governments, before, during and after the occurrence of disasters.

The project’s findings on the resilience strategies that can help organise a community-based response to extreme events, but also build people’s capacity to adapt and re-organise their individual and social lives in the aftermath of a disaster, can be scaled-up to inform government actions to reduce and manage disaster risk. The Manatí project team is now working to bring these findings to local and national policymakers. Key messages will focus on the women’s active contribution, instead of on their victimisation.

A community-based disaster preparedness and response plan that takes women’s physical, psychological, social and economic vulnerabilities into account will help to reduce women’s vulnerability to disaster overall. A plan that goes even further, to recognise women’s abilities and include them in disaster-relief efforts will help to change gendered beliefs about women. A gender-based approach to the study and analysis of natural disasters is essential to accomplishing this goal.

All of this has been an experience to us, we have to move up, as the saying goes: pa’lante es pa’lla (get going, whatever happens, happens). We must fight now; we must fight if we all want to have life and health, which is what we want.” (Manatí flood survivor)

Watch the BBC News coverage – Colombia – worst flooding in country’s history.

 

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