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OPINION: Environmental disasters widen the gender gap

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Instead of the ‘women and children first’ code of conduct, which reinforces gender stereotypes, women should be empowered to play a central role during environmental disasters – writes Claudia Mazzeo of Scidev.net. This article was originally published in Spanish.

Disaster response has been dominated by male approaches

Climate catastrophes in Latin America and the Caribbean result in a widening of the gender gap and exacerbate the poverty and vulnerability of women. In the same way that hurricanes, floods, droughts and earthquakes have varied impacts on a population depending on the socio-economic situation of the affected persons, the vulnerability of women is often amplified by these events as a result of unequal opportunities afforded to men and women.

This phenomenon was covered in a paper in the January-April 2020 edition of Íconos, Revista de Ciencias Sociales (a social sciences journal called Íconos, in Spanish). This highlighted inequalities that arise around issues such as title deeds for land ownership.

Title deeds are critical for accessing financial assistance for reconstruction after environmental disasters. However, unequal ownership exacerbates existing vulnerabilities – because it excludes women and marginalised groups, such as indigenous people.

The research shows that, ‘traditionally women have been treated as passive ‘victims’ during disasters (…) and the approach of ‘women and children first’ only serves to reinforce the gender stereotype of women as weak and men as strong’.

The research also describes how ‘disaster response is dominated by highly masculine fields such as technical engineering and military assistance. Because of this the active roles that women play in their families and communities, and due to their specific needs, their knowledge and skills have become invisible’.

‘It is critical to be aware of how disaster and risk accelerate gender inequality in our region, as it is an area of action where it is particularly difficult to visualise the differentiated impacts,’ according to researchers Cristina Vega from FLACSO Ecuador, Johannes Waldmüller from the University of the Americas (Ecuador) and Ana Gabriela Fernández from FLACSO Uruguay, responding to SciDev.Net.

“Disaster response is dominated by highly masculine fields such as technical engineering and military assistance. Through this, the active roles that women play in their families and communities and their specific needs, knowledge and skills have become invisible”.

Community and vulnerability in disaster conditions

The researchers put forward an example from a study by Oxfam International of the 2004 tsunami in Asia where 70% more women than men died because they did not know how to swim or climb trees. In addition, women took longer to regain economic independence after the disaster as they took on the resultant rise in unpaid labour. The loss of homes also often translates into the loss of equipment for economic activities such as those for artisans, cooks and seamstresses.

On the other hand, “an increase in violence against women after a disaster is a widely documented issue which arises out of unstable living conditions, seeking security from masculine figures, sexual assaults in temporary camps, increased sexual exploitation and maltreatment of women, children and adolescents,” according to SciDev.Net.

“Women and children are more likely to die than men during climate disasters according to the UN-Habitat. Also survivors encounter countless social, economic and health assistance inequalities,” says Adriana Noacco, director of the Centre for Education and Environmental Management (CEGA in Spanish) from the University of Buenos Aires.

Noacco spoke to SciDev.Net about the importance of public policies including women and guaranteeing that they can access the same opportunities as men to gain the skills for adapting to the different impacts of climate change, and that they are able to access credit for continuing their businesses after a disaster instead of being tasked with the socially prescribed roles of cleaning and cooking.

The researchers expressed the need to deepen the local and international dialogue on risk management and the implications for women, to ensure that civil society is included – particularly feminist organisations and academia.

Despite holding numerous regional conferences since the 1970s, “the scope of disaster and risk management is still covered by technical approaches and there remains a need to rethink intervention models so that they include a focus on inequalities within different communities,” say the researchers.

The research highlights the importance of women’s participation in disaster response teams, as in most cases, they are excluded from the decision-making. It makes reference to experiences such as those of the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina in the United States, Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and the 2010 tsunami in Dichato, Chile, where the female leadership was at the forefront of community care and food networks, proving their organisational capacity and specific approach to dealing with situations related to land rights, health, grief and coping with trauma and also their participation in reconstruction processes.

Fernández, Vega and Waldmüller say that improved approaches to gender equality in one place will improve the capacity to deal with natural disasters. An event itself should become a turning point for creating better conditions in terms of equality.

They say that “it is therefore necessary to revise institutional practices, the social value assigned to community and reproductive activities, and the opportunities created for developing skills for both men and women.”

In summary

• Unequal opportunities render women more vulnerable to climate disasters.
• Credit should be accessible to women for continuation of their businesses after natural disasters – among other measures targeted at women.
• This will prevent the relegation of women to socially-imposed roles such as cooking and cleaning and enable them to be more active in the public domain.

Image, above right: Humanitarian relief, Peru; courtesy Peru Red Cross.

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