13 March 2017

Haiti and why we need more women managing disaster risk


Kirsi Madi, Director, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

Six months after Hurricane Matthew devastated Haiti, we know that it made the situation of women and girls even more precarious.

A Government-led Post Disaster Needs Assessment, supported by the UN, has found that the category 4 cyclone destroyed much of the economy, with economic losses of US$2.72 billion or 32% of GDP.

It also led to the burden of poverty worsening for 679,000 women among the worst-affected, 106,180 of whom are heads of household.

In a country where women earn 32% less than men, it is difficult to imagine how female-headed households manage to survive when almost 60% of the population lived below the poverty threshold of US$2.4 per day before the hurricane.

The disaster – just like the earthquake of 2010 – led to an increase in violence against women and girls who said they felt could not move around freely after dark, and also felt at risk of sexual assault in the emergency shelters which lacked segregated facilities.

The damage to thousands of schools means that many women working in the fields or selling fish, also had to cope with the presence at home of children of school-going age, adding to their stress levels.

More young girls were forced in any case to stay at home and help with household chores and take care of younger children.

The loss of livelihoods and commercial opportunities for the sale of farm and fish produce left women open to exploitation by moneylenders charging interest rates as high as 120%, as they could not avail of the formal banking sector. In extreme cases, women were forced into prostitution to support their families.

The worsening access to safe drinking water and toilets led to renewed outbreaks of diarrhoeal disease and cholera in the devastated towns and villages of Le Sud, La Grand Anse and les Nippes.

This combined with extensive damage to a feeble public health sector, put in danger the lives of 8,400 pregnant women and their babies. According to the UN Population Fund, 1,200 of these births would have to be by Caesarian section.

It’s a sad litany of woes which reveal why it’s important on International Women’s Day to raise our voices for gender equality, especially in disaster risk management. In many disaster situations, whether in low, medium or high income countries, the needs of women and girls are often overlooked.

Why could that be?

My own view is that not enough effort is being made to ensure that the views of women and girls are actively sought when it comes to drawing up national and local plans for reducing disaster risk.

All too often, they are seen as victims when they should be seen as people with experience and insight into how disasters affect over 50% of the population including women and the children they raise.

On this International Women’s Day, I use the example of Haiti, to support a call for greater inclusion of women and girls in disaster management planning and execution.

Two years ago this month, UN Member States met in Sendai, Japan, to adopt a comprehensive global plan to reduce disaster losses, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. One of the most important stakeholder groups to help in the design of that plan were women.

Many of those women had experience of major disaster events such as the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

The Mayor of Sendai, the city at the epicenter of that catastrophe, Ms. Emiko Okuyama, said: “We realized that the people making decisions for disaster preparations on a day-to-day basis are mostly men. It reminded us that women need to be part of every decision-making forum with regards to disaster risk reduction and be active leaders in the area.”

This is changing but we need to speed up that change.

Kirsi Madi is Director at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. She has over 20 years of experience in the fields of development and humanitarian action from operational, policy and coordination perspectives.

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