To improve disaster risk reduction, aid and tech experts look to women

A meteorologist at an agency for meteorology and geophysics in Indonesia. Photo by: World Meteorological Organization / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Women bear the brunt of the impact of natural disasters, an outcome most starkly illustrated by mortality rates. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami saw male survivors in Indonesia and Sri Lanka outnumber their female counterparts by up to 4 to 1. And when Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in 2008, some villages had twice as many deaths among women compared with men.

During times of evacuation, women can often be found caring for children and members of their community, and those who survive extreme weather events face a lack of resources and a greater threat of violence and sexual exploitation. These factors require that governments and aid groups take varying needs into account during disasters and increase women’s participation in prevention and response, experts told Devex.

“Involving women is a prerequisite to disaster risk management,” said Khaled Mashfiq, regional liaison for the Asia-Pacific region at the U.N.’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme, or UNOSAT. “Not only are they often the first responders in disaster relief, but their experiences and views can also help enhance expert and scientific capacity in disaster risk management.”

Yet a shortage of gender data poses another challenge to elevating the role of women in disaster-vulnerable countries. “Our studies show that community-level, gender-disaggregated data is still lacking in many countries both in terms of hazard vulnerability and capacity assessments for better preparedness and in post-disaster needs assessments,” said Assia Alexieva, head of the monitoring, evaluation, risk, and performance unit at the World Meteorological Organization.

Several groups with a focus on risk reduction are already pushing to increase women’s involvement — a key priority of the U.N.’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction — and to close the data gap to better inform efforts moving forward.

Enhancing women’s leadership

Bangladesh, where promoting women’s leadership in disaster management has been cited as aiding a widespread drop in mortality from cyclones, is one example of a country that has taken women’s leadership seriously, according to Alexieva. Over time, the country has increasingly involved women in the design of early warning systems, building cyclone shelters, and raising community awareness.

In 1991, Cyclone Gorky killed around 140,000 people after hitting Bangladesh, with deaths among women outnumbering those of men by 14 to 1. But 2007’s similarly powerful Cyclone Sidr killed an estimated 3,500, and the ratio dropped to 5 to 1. Cyclones last year killed dozens or fewer.

Getting women more involved in use of geographic information systems and engaging girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from an early age can also drive progress, Alexieva said. At present, 3% of students taking ICT courses globally are women, and there are fewer female than male STEM graduates in 107 of 114 economies.

“If a humanitarian response is to be sensitive to the needs of different genders, it’s important we have accurate data regarding the people impacted.”

— Isadora Quay, gender in emergencies coordinator, CARE International

“Actions aimed at ensuring women’s involvement in the meteorological, hydrological, and climatological profession, and in STEM more broadly, can contribute to reducing the gender gap in access,” Alexieva said, adding that this would enable “more gender-sensitive hazard, vulnerability, and capacity mapping.”

She also highlighted how participatory, technology-based approaches can bear fruit, citing the Women’s Weather Watch platform from the organization femLINKpacific in Fiji. The platform, which reached over 19,000 women in 2016, was set up to connect women leaders and their communities to real-time disaster-related information via text message, Viber, Facebook, and media channels to help promote women’s voices in disaster management.

“Women are not only better prepared to respond to disasters but are also empowered to engage in community-based disaster management,” Alexieva said of the initiative.

With a view to aiding inclusion, WMO has carried out women’s leadership workshops and capacity development in meteorology and maintains a gender database on women’s participation in national meteorological and hydrological services.

Tapping into women’s knowledge

UNOSAT is seeking to improve gender-responsive approaches to disaster response, running a program in Guyana to build women’s roles and carrying out a training in Thailand at the end of 2019 on applying geographic information technologies in disaster scenarios, among other topics.

The rising pervasiveness of mobile phones and integration of satellite-based information is aiding development of datasets that can give a better understanding of the profiles and locations of people in communities, said Tiziana Bonapace, director of the Information and Communications Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction Division at the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

“The more we get to understand who the people are, how many women are involved, the characteristics of communities, and what the nature of poverty is, the more the challenges can be addressed,” Bonapace said, adding that this could also aid preparedness before disasters and help target funding.

UNOSAT’s Mashfiq said women frequently assume responsibility for taking children, seniors, and belongings to cyclone shelters, which means they have a greater need for knowledge of the routes and distances to those. He said they would also be more aware of the best routes to avoid floods on children’s trips to school, with GIS technology able to help in identifying these routes and assessing flood risk.

Women are often still outnumbered in GIS training sessions, Mashfiq said, even though UNOSAT seeks to ensure a 50-50 gender split and managed to achieve 45% female participation in one session last September.

“Recently… ministries were able to improve female participation, but simply weren’t able to find enough female staff who are working in technical fields related to geospatial information technology,” he said.

Collecting accurate data

If ground surveys and sex-disaggregated data can be combined with the enhancement of women’s use of technologies for disaster risk response, future outcomes stand to be more gender-sensitive.

“Despite long recognition of the critical importance of gender analysis in humanitarian settings, progress on this has been painfully slow,” said Isadora Quay, gender in emergencies coordinator at humanitarian organization CARE International, in a study last year.

That’s something CARE has sought to resolve with its rapid gender analyses, or RGAs, which help organizations gather “essential information about gender roles and responsibilities, capacities and vulnerabilities … in situations where time is of the essence and resources are scarce.” CARE is also developing a voice app to enhance data by enabling collection of women’s and men’s testimonies during a disaster.

Since 2013, the organization has designed and delivered RGAs in more than 60 crises worldwide, highlighting a range of issues — among not just women, but other vulnerable groups, too.

During Ethiopia’s droughts in 2016, for example, a CARE gender analysis noted limited migration by pregnant women, seniors, people with disabilities, and young children. And in the Cyclone Idai response in Mozambique last year, women and girls were worried about changing or washing sanitary pads in mixed-sex latrines without locks.

“If a humanitarian response is to be sensitive to the needs of different genders, it’s important we have accurate data regarding the people impacted,” Quay told Devex. “Although the humanitarian sector has improved in this area, there is still a definite gap.”

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.

About the author

  • Gareth Willmer

    Gareth Willmer is a freelance writer and subeditor based in London. His main coverage areas are science, technology and telecoms, as well as how changes and advances in these areas affect the developing world. He regularly works for publications including New Scientist and SciDev.Net, and previously worked as a subeditor for Nature.