Four myths about gender and disaster risk reduction

Source(s): World Bank, the
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By Maitreyi Bordia Das and Alvina Erman

Over time, there has been growing acknowledgment that men and women often experience disasters differently.  Understanding these differences is critical to the management of disasters and for building lasting resilience. But, with this increasing salience has come a set of oft-repeated “truths” about gender and disasters that frequently come from an advocacy perspective rather than one grounded in evidence.  There are three facts that underscore the complexity of this issue: first, disasters encompass a wide range of hazards; second, women and men are highly diverse groups; and third, gender is about the relations between men and women ─ it is not just about women. Despite these facts, there are some common myths:  

1. Women are more vulnerable in disasters than are men. This may indeed be true for some women, but not for others. A mix of age, income, marital status, disability status, occupation, among other factors, intersect with gender to mediate the extent and type of impact of disasters. Take the effects of disasters on mental health, for instance. While women show a higher propensity towards depression, anxiety and stress-related disordersmen may be more likely to commit suicide. Traditional norms of masculinity can prevent men from seeking help, resulting in differential mental health outcomes. Men also hold the traditional “breadwinner” role, and loss of livelihoods affects them, and their families differently than it does women. Yet, there is evidence of higher incidence of violence against women in the aftermath of disasters. There is also a contrast in workloads: a news report on the recent floods in Kerala, India, pointed to women’s increased domestic workload after the disaster. So, the type of impact matters. Overall, a narrative that depicts women only in their vulnerability ignores the myriad ways in which they are agents of change and work together with men in disaster preparedness and response. As leaders in their communities, they also have an active role in building long-term resilience. This is especially true of women who live in ecologically fragile areas and of indigenous women. As farmers, for instance, women are at the forefront of climate adaptation, while securing food and income for their families.   

2. Women are more likely than men to die in disasters. Actually, women are more likely to die in some disasters in some regions, but not in others. For example, men account for 70% of flood related deaths in Europe and the U.S., for several reasons, including an overrepresentation of men in rescue professions. In less developed countries, more women tend to die from disasters, also due to diverse reasons, including lack of adequate information and reluctance to use public shelters.   

3. Interventions targeted at women should focus on the household. One of the abiding myths about gendered roles is that women do “inside work” and men do “outside work”.  While official labor force statistics may underestimate the value of women’s work, in fact, women are active as business owners, farmers, teachers, among other areas. They depend on functioning markets, services and infrastructure for their livelihood. While interventions aimed at supporting women as homemakers can have many positive impacts on, for example, women’s time use, the exclusive focus on domestic responsibilities ignores the role of women as market actors and consumers of infrastructure and other public goods.   

4. Good DRR policies and programs benefit men and women equally. Not always. Even seemingly gender-neutral interventions have gendered implications across the board, and not just in the context of DRR. For example, in DRR, the design of cyclone shelters, including the extent to which they have separate bathrooms, access to water and women-only spaces, can determine whether and how women use them. Similarly, plans for disaster preparedness need to consider whether and how much women have access to information in an accessible language and medium. A World Bank project in Bangladesh worked with these aspects to eliminate resistance to, and misinformation about, cyclone shelters. 

At the Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR), we work with a diverse group of actors to deepen our work on gender and inclusion. Across the world, there are excellent examples of how gender considerations can be integrated in the design and delivery of policies and programs for DRR. Let us share those examples, because, this year’s DRR Day focus is on the fact that governance matters. And let us commit ourselves to addressing gender issues in DRR based on evidence and nuance.

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