Gender Equality through Disaster & Climate Change Readiness: from Policy to Practice
Right now marks the middle of the 58th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York City, the annual taking-stock of Millennium Development Goals as they relate to successes, challenges, and progress for women and girls around the globe. Like many UN events, the annual CSW is two weeks of prepared statements, panel discussions, and working group meetings packed with lofty and generalized language, seemingly perfectly designed to simultaneously aggravate and bore participants.
Last Thursday I was a participant in that process. I spoke at a CSW parallel event put on by the Tzu Chi Foundation, a humanitarian disaster relief organization. I presented on the state of gender equality through a climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction lens, from my perspective as a junior researcher for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and F&ES masters student focused on climate and disaster preparedness. Following my presentation, four other women spoke on a panel: two women closely involved with relief efforts after the Haitian earthquake, and two women who worked post-Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda to organize cleanup and rebuilding efforts. While I brought an academic perspective to the talk, the other panelists told their own stories working in post-disaster settings.
During the Q&A that followed, someone asked, Why bother bringing into the conversation these local-level speakers from such far off places? The person seemed to be asking “Why not keep it to experts?” The answer should be obvious. How can we progress the top-down Action Plans designed for better outcomes for girls and women if we don’t directly link those living in the very local contexts we are seeking to understand and shape? The granular perspective the four panelists brought to the audience a human story. And it brought a needed change to the slow moving and rarely inspiring CSW. Ideally, we will see more people and organizations experimenting with these important conversations to make the global policy process more inclusive and innovative.
To give more of a sense of this intersection of gender and climate, I’ve included below several of the themes I discussed. First, why should we focus on women, climate change, and disasters at all?
Climate-related disasters such as floods, droughts, cyclones and extreme temperatures can have different and inequitable impacts on men and women, depending on their roles in the community and at home. Gender intersects with economic, social, and cultural factors, often creating unsafe conditions that place women and girls at greater risk when disasters strike.
For disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation to contribute to gender equality, we first need widespread recognition of the differential and disproportionate burdens women bear as climate change unfolds and when disasters unfold. For example, research has found that women in Bangladesh are more calorie-deficient than men. Subsequently, their health doesn’t recover as quickly after flood disasters. Recognition that these differences exist can help tailor interventions to address the variable impacts of climate change, and contribute towards equality-building. Turning the focus onto disproportionate burdens can use disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation efforts to end negative feedback cycles where women are worse off after disasters and have a harder time recovering, and start positive feedback cycles for greater resilience amongst women and their families.
What role do rural women have to play in ensuring environmental sustainability?
Rural women need to increase existing participation and start to participate in new ways in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction processes. A growing body of research in psychology and economics shows that women and men make decisions differently in ways that are important for sustainable development and climate change adaptation. This research, focused on community-based climate change adaptation projects, suggests that having women be more active participants in decision-making and planning would bring about more successful adaptation interventions . Because women have been found to be more risk averse, more likely to listen to advice, and more likely to cooperate with each other than men, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction efforts might look altogether different if women are more active participants. For example, in Bangladesh, organizing women into groups to participate in training sessions, to support each other in implementing adaptation strategies, and to participate in group marketing of produce and handicrafts, has increased social cohesion and overall resilience to extreme and adverse weather events.
What do we need to change in order to further activate female leadership in building community resilience after disasters?
I spent my last summer conducting research for the Red Cross in Malawi. There, it was clear to me that women are a part of community-based DRR efforts. And increasingly so: women were about 50% of any meeting or decision-making forum I was a part of, and this was cited to be a relatively new phenomenon. However, interviews with community members, NGOs, and the local government revealed a more complicated story. Though women are increasingly in the room and at the table, barriers still exist to getting women voices heard, participation more equal between genders, and towards female leadership being less of an anomaly. This is the issue of representation vs. participation. Although women are represented in the room, they are not effective participants in those processes as compared to the male participants. While the social and cultural barriers to getting women equally represented in decision making may take some time to break down, I hope that if women continue to take advantage of opportunities – and continue building their own opportunities – to observe and learn, effective participation will follow .
 Patt, A.G., Daze, A., and Suarez, P. (2009). Gender and climate change vulnerability. In: Ruth, M. and Ibarraran, M. E. (eds). Distributional Impacts of Climate Change and Disasters: Concepts and Cases. Edward Elger: Cheltenham, UK.