Does Your Plan Address Gender Issues?

In addressing the issues of women in disasters, we sometimes focus too much on vulnerabilities rather than need.

by Lucien G. Canton / January 26, 2017

Some years ago, I attended a session on women in disasters. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I know I wasn’t taking the subject too seriously. That changed very quickly. As an emergency planner, I was appalled at the gaps in our planning. The issues we neglected ranged from basic issues such as the failure to include feminine hygiene products and infant formula in our logistics supply chain to issues of safety within shelters. It changed my approach to planning.

Sadly, while things have improved, we’re not there yet. In a paper published in the Journal of Emergency Management titled Rethinking our approach to gender and disasters: Needs, responsibilities, and solutions, researchers Samantha Montano and Amanda Savitt surveyed the existing literature on gender issues in disasters. Their goal was to identify suggestions and fix responsibility within the emergency management community for minimizing vulnerability and addressing the needs of women in disaster.

Montano and Savitt identified three trends within the disaster literature:

  1. Empirical research focused primarily on the vulnerability of women in disasters rather than on their needs.
  2. Suggestions contained in the research literature tended to be generic rather than comprehensive and was not always supported by empirical evidence.
  3. The research did not identify who has responsibility for addressing needs and implementing solutions.

The research literature examined by Montano and Savitt covered the social vulnerability of women in disasters but rarely addressed the root causes of that vulnerability. Montano and Savitt make the case that some of this vulnerability may be the result of latent needs that existed in community prior to the disaster, much in the way that disasters can exacerbate pre-existing social conditions. Montano and Savitt suggest that the vulnerability of women may actually be less than the literature suggests because of the failure of some researchers to provide context through comparisons with men. For example, the lack of post-disaster mental health counseling may apply to all disaster victims, not just women.

The distinction between vulnerability and need is important to emergency planners. As planners, recognizing that a portion of the community is vulnerable doesn’t automatically address that vulnerability. We need to determine the root causes and translate that into needs that can be addressed in our planning. Monanto and Savitt identified three areas of need that we should be focusing on:

  1. Health — women’s healt- care and reproductive care needs are often lacking in both response and recovery.
  2. Security — women feel unsafe in shelters for several reasons, much centered around domestic violence and physical abuse. Returning home and dealing with issues related to the disaster (e.g., broken street lights, transients) or staying in temporary public housing can also create feelings of insecurity.
  3. Economic — women are less likely than men to find employment in post-disaster work and are more likely to need public temporary housing.

Not all these needs can be handled by emergency planners, but we can certainly take the lead to ensure they are addressed. One good way to make sure your planning addresses gender issues is to commit to the concept of functional needs and to be broadly inclusive when developing your planning team. Another is to educate yourself on the issues through sites like the Gender and Disaster Network.

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