By Jonathan Fowler
Montreal, Canada – Empowering women to tackle the threats that natural and human-induced hazards pose to their communities is a critical means to reduce the risk of disasters, delegates at a conference on the Americas said today.
A special International Women’s Day-themed session at the 5th Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas spotlighted what needs to be done to make efforts gender-sensitive.
“This is not a day just like any other day,” said Ms. Carmen Moreno, Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission of Women, a body of the Organization of American States.
“We are working to enhance the empowerment of women and girls in disaster risk reduction,” she said.
The Montreal conference, hosted by the Canadian government, began on Tuesday and has drawn a thousand delegates from over 50 countries and territories. They are set to endorse a three-year action plan that aligns regional, national and local efforts with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a global agreement adopted in 2015.
Like the action plans already endorsed by Africa, Asia and Europe, the Americas’ version will feed discussions at the 2017 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, in May in Mexico.
The Sendai Framework, which links closely with the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals, seeks to bring down disaster mortality, the number of people affected, and economic losses, all by 2030.
It calls specifically for gender-sensitive actions to curb risk.
“We need to take into account that women’s needs and their specific conditions of vulnerability are very significant,” said Ms. Moreno.
“Women are not more vulnerable naturally. It’s their conditions that make them more vulnerable,” she said, pointing to factors such as lower social status than men, economic inequality and lack of access to decision-making processes.
“We believe that we have to improve risk management, taking into account the capacities of women and girls, and redistribute the roles of men and women, so that women are not over-burdened with the costs of disasters. In this way you can empower women in all stages of the process.”
Ms. Dinoska Yadira Perez Garcia, Director of the Social Projects and Management Unit at Honduras’ Standing Committee on Emergencies (COPECO), echoed those comments.
“Studies show that more women die in emergencies and that disasters affect men and women in different ways,” she said.
“Women should not be thought as naturally vulnerable. They can be powerful agents of change. And we are!”
The Sendai Framework spells out the need to ensure that data on risk and disasters is disaggregated by age, sex and disability.
“We also need to understand how we’re measuring vulnerability, as well as needs,” said Ms. Perez. She pointed to the way that past research focusing on men as heads of a family had sidelined the fact that they were more often away from home, and that women had a better understanding of risks to a household.
“Gender is not only about rights and inclusiveness. Women represent half of the population and the majority of those affected. The gender approach to disaster risk reduction benefits 100% of the population,” she added.
Ms. Jacinda Fairholm, Regional Advisor at the Disaster Risk Reduction, Sustainable Development and Resilience Team, at the UN Development Programme’s Regional Hub, also underscored the data issue.
“If you’re not compiling the data adequately, it’s very hard to have recovery policies or actions that respond based on the different needs of men and women,” she said.
The picture varies across the Americas, noted Dr. Virginia Clervaux, Director of the Department of Disaster Management and Emergencies, Turks and Caicos Islands.
“In Caribbean states there’s a tendency to equally engage women and men in the disaster risk reduction process, and sometimes to engage women more than men,” she said.
The speakers also underlined the importance of harnessing the education system and public awareness campaigns, and of adequate funding.
“Women want to be part of projects, and we want to participate in public policy. Budgets should be devoted to women’s empowerment projects. If you educate a woman, you’re educating a family and a community,” said Ms. Relinda Sosa, a grassroots campaigner from Peru.