Preventing Natural Disasters: The Crucial Role of Women

Natural disasters impact women more severely than men. They also tend to exacerbate existing inequalities. However, taking gender into consideration when preparing for these kinds of events can help mitigate these effects and speed recovery for everyone.

Women are more vulnerable than men in the face of natural disaster. In fact, a study published in 2007 revealed that the female victims of these devastating events greatly outnumber their male counterparts. What’s worse, this gender disparity is long-term: women’s life expectancy decreased more markedly following natural disaster than did men’s. The principal cause of this increased vulnerability to the whims of nature is the socio-economic gap between men and women. Insufficient access to education and information (for instance, in some countries, women are not encouraged to learn to swim) and lower income (women make 20 to 30% less than men) are just two examples of the host of ways gender inequality continues to manifest itself today.


In response to this situation, the United Nations published a 2009 report – drafted collectively by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) – that recommends “incorporating gender issues into disaster risk reduction”. When it comes to preventing or reducing the effects of natural disasters, decision-makers have begun to realize that women play a crucial role – just like they do in the sciences. Indeed, as Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction Margareta Wahlström explains in the conclusion, including women in risk prevention could be advantageous for a number of reasons.


In a 2008 publication, UNISDR lists a number of successful initiatives that incorporated gender into the risk management process. For example, in Mali, a programme encouraged women to explore professions other than wood sales in order to prevent deforestation and to decrease erosion and flooding. Thanks to math and reading classes, women were able to successfully transition to managing small businesses structured around vegetable gardens.


A variety of initiatives


Research has also shown that women are in a better position to notice and react to warning signs. For example, in Sri Lanka, women are more likely to notice mudslides because they are more attentive to their environment and tend to notice changes to familiar surroundings, whether they work in the area or from home. Setting up neighbourhood committees that include women is thus an easy way to track the early warning signs for mudslides and other natural disasters. And this is just one of many positive examples, such as the Step Up campaign for 2012 International Day for Disaster Reduction, which acknowledged and conveyed the important role women and girls play in disaster recovery.


Ignoring women’s experience and talents is a clear obstacle to reducing the impact of natural disasters. To make sure women play a greater role in preventative initiatives, we must first foster gender equality in a broader sense by providing equal access to education and public expression, particularly in the most fragile communities.

L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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