Ria Sen: How technology can support inclusive risk reduction
Ria Sen says disaster risk reduction and climate projects need to have engagement tools that recognize the financial and social barriers that keep women from being heard.
Ria is Lead Preparedness Officer with the Technology Division at the World Food Programme. She works with the Emergency Telecommunication Cluster that supports preparedness and response in crises around the world. She reflects on the converging crises of gender inequality and climate change and shares her personal views on how these overlapping issues fit into the global conversation on disaster risk reduction.
“The conditions are right for women to claim a space in disaster and climate preparedness and response”
“A lot of my work is about technological readiness for managing disaster-related risks for governments and communities,” Ria says. “We do this by supporting the stakeholders in developing emergency telecommunication roadmaps and disaster contingency plans as national planning measures. For communities, this entails development of early warning services, helping people know when they are at risk. “
Ria points out that a nuanced and inclusive approach to community consultation is about more than just tech.
“It's about understanding what is the body of traditional knowledge, including in the environmental domain, that women or other vulnerable groups have.”
“Technology is a function of process and people, and not just the hardware or software,” she says. “It's about understanding what is the body of traditional knowledge, including in the environmental domain, that women or other vulnerable groups have. This body of knowledge is resilient and offers interesting solutions for linking existing resources that are present at the community level to technology.”
Ria says disaster risk reduction and climate projects need to have engagement tools that recognize the financial and social barriers that keep women from being heard.
“These issues require community-based disaster risk reduction to be sensitive to gender inclusiveness and diversity,” she says. "We need interventions across the spectrum of the disaster risk management cycle; not just planning and preparedness but response and recovery programming.”
“These issues require community-based disaster risk reduction to be sensitive to gender inclusiveness and diversity.”
Ria says climate projects also require a spectrum of skills. “Being a preparedness specialist doesn't equal being a gender specialist,” she says. “What’s needed is a nuanced approach, there is a lot of technical expertise which is needed on all sides to design effective interventions.”
Through her work, she aspires to help all stakeholders use a more comprehensive approach that drives inclusive technology in risk reduction. “It isn't just about dropping a tool or a tech product in a particular context,” she says. “We need to know the context from those that are most vulnerable - and that starts with community consultations.”
Ria says it’s helpful to go back to core principles to guide technology development and deployment. “The bedrock for social and economic representation for at-risk communities is enabling their participation in decision-making.”
“The bedrock for social and economic representation for at-risk communities is enabling their participation in decision-making.”
Gender analysis helps develop understanding of the gender roles and relationships that impact how women, men, girls, boys and people of diverse gender identities experience disasters in different contexts. For Ria, it’s about trying to create a ‘culture of safety’ so there is resilience in the household, which then translates to resilience in the community and society as a whole.
“The creation of an enabling environment is critical for this type of work,” she says. “It's quite a complex ecosystem and there are some steps which we take from a programmatic perspective, but there is a lot more to be done.”
Ria says when it comes to messages about disaster and climate-related threats, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
“Messages need to be able to be disseminated across a range of groups that might speak different languages even within the same country,” she says. “It’s about making those warning messages not just friendly for women, but all vulnerable groups. This must include persons with disabilities.”
She says the knowledge of the community and existing systems should be at the heart of climate-related DRR.
“The starting point in designing any system,” Ria says, “is to map what traditional knowledge repositories exist and then trying to understand how those knowledge repositories communicate critical information.”
She points to a successful example from Vanuatu. “The community was able to create a risk map and ran awareness activities at a community school,” she says. “This increased awareness of the younger generation about what type of hazards the community is at risk from, and what to do to prepare and respond.”
Ria says the process went beyond just identifying pressing risks and vulnerabilities. “It was preparing them on how to respond to those hazards,” she says, “by sharing traditional adaptation techniques. This is an example of how the community collaborated with national entities and the science underpins community knowledge.”
“The challenge we see with gender parity and women’s inclusion is cultural norms and inequitable distribution of roles, resources and power; particularly in developing countries.”
Ria says patriarchal views are often holding women back from equal participation and leadership in the disaster and climate-preparedness conversation. “Vulnerability to climate change will be determined by a community or individuals’ ability to adapt,” Ria says. “The challenge that we see with gender-related issues and women’s inclusion is that cultural norms result in inequitable distribution of roles, resources and power; particularly in developing countries.”
Ria says the gender imbalance of women in DRR and climate work is systemic. “Women are typically not encouraged to engage in STEM fields for studies and professions,” she says. “That might be because of patriarchal attitudes and gender norms, which dictate that the role of women in society is typically within the household. This restricts women's access and decision-making for economic participation.”
“The pressing need is that women must adapt to a changing climate and they have to adapt their livelihoods.”
She says it all adds up: “Cumulatively, this translates into women having limited opportunities to gain knowledge, professional experience and leadership.”
Ria stresses that disaster risk reduction mechanisms must focus on helping women earn sustainable incomes before and after disasters. “The pressing need is that women must adapt to a changing climate and they have to adapt their livelihoods,” she says. “The increases in these extreme weather conditions like storms and floods are already transforming economies.”
But she says the impact of climate change goes far beyond local employment opportunities. “Climate change will shape the patterns of human migration as it’s one of the biggest global threats this century,” she says. “Women will be affected by these changes, far more than men.”
Despite the gender imbalance in disaster and climate leadership, Ria remains hopeful. “I think that now the conditions are right for women to claim that space in disaster and climate preparedness and response,” she says. “The sector would benefit from highly qualified professionals.”
Image: UNFPA/Scarlett Hawkins
“That nexus between women's vulnerability and climate-related issues is clear, and it's something which is a cause for great concern.”
Ria says climate change impacts all aspects of food systems and extreme weather events are increasing. “That nexus between women's vulnerability and climate-related issues is clear, and it's something which is a cause for great concern,” she says.
She says the focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment and leadership within planning and preparedness for communities will help shape adequate responses.
“Using a gender lens in vulnerability analysis on populations that rely on environmental outputs for their sustenance is important,” Ria says. “It reveals questions like: ‘What are the disparities in the vulnerabilities between women and men? And what can exacerbate the vulnerability induced by climate?’”
The Women's International Network on Disaster Risk Reduction (WIN DRR) is a professional network to support women working in disaster risk reduction, in all their diversity. WIN DRR promotes and supports women's leadership in disaster risk reduction across the Asia Pacific region, and aims to reduce the barriers faced by women and empower them to attain leadership and enhance their decision-making in disaster risk reduction. WIN DRR is supported by UNDRR and the Government of Australia.
Learn more about Ria’s work
The views expressed in this article are Ria’s own and they do not represent the official positions of the World Food Programme.
Ria Sen is Lead Preparedness Officer with the Technology Division at the World Food Programme. She works with the Emergency Telecommunication Cluster that supports preparedness and response in crises around the world.