Ebola, tsunamis and droughts — how gender inequality undermines community resilience

Women and children at a food distribution site in Mali during the 2010 famine in the Sahel region. Women and girls are most affected in times of disasters and crises. Photo by: Daouda Guirou / WFP / DFAT / CC BY-NC-ND

Up to three out of four people who contract the deadly Ebola virus are women. Nearly two out of three people who died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were female. And women in Mali are widely seen as bearing the greatest burden during times of hardship and crisis.

The reason women and girls experience disproportionately greater impact from disease outbreaks, natural disasters and other life-threatening hardships has little to do with biology — and much to do with gender roles.

In Liberia, as in many countries, women and girls are the primary caregivers, and therefore more vulnerable to infection when family members get sick. More females died in the tsunami because they lacked basic survival skills such as the ability to swim and climb trees, and were more likely to be caring for others when the wave hit. And in the Sahel, women typically will eat less during difficult times to make sure their husbands and children are fed first.

Knowing that shocks such as these affect gender groups differently, Mercy Corps conducted research between June 2013 and January 2014 to explore the relationship of gender dynamics and resilience building. We chose to study the Sahel region of Mali, Niger and Nigeria — an area beset by chronic poverty, food shortage, drought, degradation of its ecosystem and conflict.

Resilience is hardly a new concept in the field of international development. In fact, it has become something of a buzzword, owing to a number of recent crises across the globe. Mercy Corps defines resilience as the capacity of communities in complex socio-ecological systems to learn, cope, adapt and transform in the face of shocks and stresses. And it is our belief that in the Sahel, the key to that capacity — indeed, the key to survival of the Sahel and its people — is the region’s ability to achieve gender equality.

Put another way: As long as gender inequality remains, resilience will be impossible to achieve.

This theory of change stems from our research findings, which show that:

     ● Gender influences sensitivity to disturbances. In other words, men and women — even those who live in the same household — experience shocks and stresses differently.

     ● Men, women, boys and girls perceive and even define shocks differently.

     ● Gender influences the skills, strategies and mechanisms that individuals use to cope with and adapt to disturbances.

These findings suggest that the first step to building resilience is using gender-sensitive approaches to define problems and design solutions. We cannot fully understand the shocks and stresses communities face without understanding the different needs, vulnerabilities and capacities within those communities.

Based on our research and our experience developing programs that address existing gender inequalities in the Sahel, Mercy Corps envisions three interdependent pathways to empowerment. Key steps include increasing women and girls’ access to and control of:

     ● Financial, physical and natural capital, allowing women and girls to better adapt to the shocks and stresses they face.

     ● Human capital, which leads to knowledge, skills and information that will reduce stresses on households and help to conserve limited natural resources.

     ● Social and political capital, considered a vital coping strategy for the rural poor, especially women.

With these pathways to empowerment in mind, Mercy Corps recommends a series of transformations in the Sahel that will lead to individual, household and community resilience by addressing the issue of gender inequality.

First, we should provide opportunities for women and girls to build social capital by creating or strengthening “safe spaces” and support networks, including both formal and informal village savings and loans associations. We must also strengthen women and girls’ connections to groups and networks across and outside their communities, and strengthen their voices to informal and formal governance structures. Lastly, it’s vital to increase women and girls’ access to and control over productive inputs (like land, financial services or agricultural tools), resources, services and technologies.

A gender-integrated approach that empowers women and girls — while also engaging men and boys — will be crucial for achieving long-term, positive change and transforming deeply entrenched inequality in the Sahel. In short, by addressing gender inequality, the Sahel will become more resilient to the many hardships it faces.

Download the full report on Mercy Corps’ gender and resilience research.

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About the author

  • Sahar alnouri

    Sahar Alnouri

    Sahar Alnouri is senior gender adviser at Mercy Corps. Prior to taking on this global role, she was the organization's Iraq gender program manager based in Baghdad, and also worked for Counterpart International out of Kabul. Alnouri was a member of Mercy Corps' emergency response team during the 2009 crisis in Gaza and the Arab Spring assessment team in Egypt in early 2011.