Empowering Women to Reduce Disaster Risks

If we are going to see real development in the world then our best investment is women.

– Desmond Tutu, 1984 Nobel Peace Prize

This year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction (IDDR) will be observed on 13th October. Since 1990 when it first begun, IDDR has become an important event which highlights the successes and the continuous attempts toward achieving safer and more resilient communities. “We cannot eliminate disasters, but we can mitigate risk”, said Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations in his statement for the IDDR. “We can reduce damage and we can save more lives.” The IDDR reminds us of the importance of preparedness at normal times. Natural hazards, such as earthquakes, floods and cyclones, need not to turn into “disasters” with casualties and economic damages – if effective preventive measures are in place.

This year, the theme of the IDDR is “”Women and Girls – the [in]Visible Force of Resilience”. The Day reconfirms the importance of women and girls in contributing to various stages of disaster risk management. Women, if given the right opportunity, are strong leaders in disaster risk reduction who bring an important and a different perspective to that of men. They play so many roles within the society as activists, law makers, household heads, community leaders, caregivers, and most importantly, mothers. Their participation to all phases of the disaster management cycle, pre-, during and post-disaster, is fundamental to have a holistic approach as well as to ensure that their differentiated needs are being met. That is why they have to be involved in the policy, planning and implementation processes.

Yet in many societies, gender inequality remains to be a challenge in achieving sustainable development. In the 2005 Sumatra Tsunami, it was found that women were up to eight times more likely to die compared to men as a result of the tsunami. NGOs identified factors such as their lack of ability to swim, being at home at the time of the tsunami, lower awareness of tsunami risks, heavier clothing that got caught in the water, their role as caregivers as having contributed to the higher mortality. In post-disaster context, there are reports of increased violence against women, higher risk of trafficking and being pushed into prostitution as a survival mechanism. Women are also more likely to be engaged in informal work with less social protection, be poorer, and have a bigger role to support children and elderly members of the family.

Although women are not always at higher risk of death from disasters (during the 2011 Thailand floods, for example, more men died during the disaster), mainstreaming of gender into disaster risk reduction is an area requiring much more attention across the Asia-Pacific region. When women are discriminated against in society, it is also the children, elderly, and the community who bear the consequences. Needless to say, a society is also not taking full advantage of its resources. A weak link can mean the destruction of the entire chain, and gender inequality is the weak link.

One empowering tool to strengthening the resilience is through education and awareness. Women must be included in public life, and this begins with the education of boys and girls through to adulthood. This should be how the two sexes work together to remove the barriers that prevent women and girls from participating in the disaster risk management cycle. The 2012 IDDR reminds us that we should no longer see women as likely victims of disasters, but instead as leaders in disaster risk reduction.


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