On gender, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development

feng min kan

 “Gender equality in DRR does not mean merely addressing women’s
issues – it means addressing concerns of both men and women, the
relations between them and the root causes of gender imbalances”

Since 2005 Feng Min Kan (China) has been the Senior Coordinator for the Advocacy and Outreach Coordination Unit within the UNISDR (The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) secretariat in Geneva. In this position, she has fostered the idea that both gender equality and disaster risk reduction are imperative to achieve sustainable development.

One of the first things reported in “Making disaster risk reduction gender-sensitive” (published in 2009 by UNISDR, UNDP (UN Development Programme) and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Geneva, 2009) is that “While women’s vulnerability to disasters is often highlighted, their role in fostering a culture of resilience and their active contribution to building it has not been adequately recognized”.

Disaster management has been traditionally considered as a men’s field. Women have not been really represented at policy and decision making level of disaster management, this also reflects the situation of women in disaster risk reduction at country level, therefore the gender perspective has not been really considered but the reality is that women bear a large proportion of population living in poverty. When people are poor they also live in the most vulnerable areas other people would not even think of living.

In a community for instance prone to the impact of floods, if most of the women do not have much formal education, also due to poverty, they won’t have real access to information nor will they probably understand what exactly the fact that a cyclone with a certain speed is coming implies. If they don’t, they cannot take actions to protect themselves and their families. In this kind of situation women are much more vulnerable than others.

The report also highlights physical and environmental vulnerabilities women face in many contexts. What are they?

In some cultures women are not supposed to learn to swim and climb for instance.

Can you give me some example from the past of women’s active contribution to build disaster resilience?

At community level it has been very clear that especially in the southern developing countries women play a very important role in keeping their household and communities and that when they do understand the issue they try to come up with solutions. When I was working with OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) I was responsible for the coordination of disaster response at the request of disaster affected countries, meaning that when a disaster occurred I would go there and assess the situation to see how the UN could support the governments’ efforts.

During one of my missions to Nepal in 2000, a national officer from UNDP country office told me the story of a community which was flooded every year. In order to protect their crops and the community, during the monsoon period they started to put different households on duty to watch the water level. That could not help them protect their crops when the flood became unmanageable, only the people, so the UNDP national officer responsible for disasters had a meeting with the community and said ‘look, this is an annual event, we can provide certain support to reduce the flood risks, but it is not enough, we need to get the support from the community’. All the community members, men and women, then contributed with their time and some of their limited resources to make a small wall protecting the crops from the river and, they told me, ‘now they can sleep during the monsoon season’. This could be achieved simply because the whole community was part of the decision and contributed to build the resilience.
This story was among the things that made me make the decision to change my work from disaster response to disaster risk reduction. If I can influence many communities like this, I said to myself, then their livelihood and properties could be protected in the first place.

How did you end up dealing with these issues?

I started with the UN peace mission in Mozambique in 1993 and then joined the UNDP to support war affected countries to develop strategies frameworks. In 1998, when I was working with UNDP in the Central African Republic, there was a very big flood in China. OCHA contacted me and proposed me to coordinate the UN humanitarian support to the flooded affected provinces in the country. This actually changed my profession, from development to humanitarian relief. After few months in China, OCHA sent me to Japan as a regional disaster response adviser for Asia. I have seen so many people affected by disasters and that the support that we can provide is not sufficient enough to help people to get back on their feet. For instance Mongolia has been repeatedly affected by the white snow disaster (dzud), during which the snow covers large areas of the country and the livestock basically froze or starve to death. I visited the area after a dzud with the Minister of Agriculture. Many herders were waiting for support but at that time the Mongolian government was in a period of transition, was not prepared for that magnitude of disasters and really needed international support. During the initial assessment mission to the affected areas I asked them what kind of support they had received and they said they were given some boxes of matches and three candles…
That made me think that if we could do more before the disaster occurs and have people better prepared at least we can reduce the magnitude of the impact of disasters even if we cannot prevent them. With this thinking in my mind I started to look at disaster risk reduction and realized a lot can be done. More importantly we need to integrate risk reduction into development and make it resilient to disasters. We need to mobilize the political commitment and to make the development practitioners or policy makers understand they have an important role in reducing people’s vulnerabilities to natural hazards. This job is very challenging and also difficult to sell, because it requires people to change their mind set in for managing both disaster and development issues.

What needs to be changed?

First of all the idea that disasters are natural, because they are men-made. Earthquakes don’t kill people; it is poorly built buildings that kill people during earthquakes. This is because poorly built building increase people’s vulnerabilities and risks to natural hazards. If an earthquake occurs in a desert area, even at a magnitude of 9, it is an earthquake, not a disaster. What determine a disaster are the natural hazards plus people’s vulnerability and minus the community’s capability to cope or reduce the risk. When we talk about natural disasters people believe disasters are natural and there is nothing we can do. Until the 90s most governments focused on disaster preparedness. Now more and more governments are working on risk reduction in the context of development, which is a paradigm shift from disaster management to disaster risk reduction.

The second mind shift should come from the development sector because development can either reduce or increase people’s vulnerability or risks to disasters. In the past when we built a school we called it development but if before constructing we do not consider the risk assessment we might for instance build it in an earthquake fault belt, which is not development because in the long term we are putting the children at risk. We could either strengthen the building or move the location to a safer place. Who can do this kind of task are not disaster managers but development policy makers, decision makers and practitioners. Therefore we need to integrate disaster risk assessment into development planning and programmes so to make development more resilient to natural hazards.

What does the Japanese case teach about this all?

Japan, as we know, was one of the most well prepared countries but there are always events that are bigger than what we are prepared for. If such a powerful earthquake shortly followed by such a powerful tsunami had happened in any other country the losses would have been much bigger. I have worked and lived in Kobe for three years. In 1995 the city suffered from a big earthquake, after which the government improved its policies, built a countrywide volunteers network and now Kobe city hosts a museum to remind people the impact of the earthquake. The government applies for risk assessment before constructing new buildings. All the buildings constructed in Kobe after the 1995 earthquakes are very resilient but those built earlier may not apply to that kind of standards.
Nationwide Japan has done well in early warning and broadcast for disasters which in few minutes arrives everywhere through TV and it is the country who hosted the only two UN conferences on disaster reduction (1994, Yokohama, the first introducing in a comprehensive way risk reduction and vulnerabilities’ issues and 2005, Kobe). So the government not only tries to do work at country level but also to advocate these subjects among the international community.

This last disaster, however, is complex (nuclear issues, tsunami and an earthquake in a quite density area) and it is one I am not too familiar with…Nevertheless I believe lots of stories will come out from Japan for good practices and also for how we can further improve in building resilient societies, although I think now it’s too early to comment on that.

Are the Hyogo Framework for Action and the good practices highlighted in “Making disaster risk reduction gender-sensitive” being implemented successful somewhere?

Sometimes we push an issue but it takes a time to see the results.
In 2005 we brought gender as a cross cutting issue into the Hyogo Framework for action but when we reviewed the government reports done on it we realized the gender perspective was basically marginalized. At the same time we knew there were lots of people who had been pushing a gender sensitive approach to risk reduction in different capacities through academic teaching, workshops etc, so we organized the first expert group meeting and found out a lot had been put into the pose of disaster recovery process instead of risk reduction. We therefore organized another expert group meeting trying to bring experts specialized in gender and governance, gender and DRR, gender and biodiversity management and gender and environment. From there we realized we need to advocate more before we formulate policies and practical guidelines.
In 2007 we introduced the subject to the national governments during the first Global Platform on DRR in Geneva. Some governments asked us for policy guidelines, so in 2009 we developed the guidelines based on two global meetings (Manila Declaration for Global Action on Gender in Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction and Beijing, first international conference on gender and disaster risk reduction, April 2009) and the results of the experts meetings.

During these two years we translated this document into different UN languages and sent it to all UN country offices. Each year we make a progress and try to be slow but sure. Now I think the important thing is how we mobilize the national governments…We are not an operational organization so we hope through the global platform more UN, intergovernmental organizations and civil societies pick up the subject and translate the guidelines into action.

As far as good practices are concerned, Philippines included DRR in their Climate Act and integrated the gender concept to it.
Another example of good practice comes from Mexico, whose UNDP representative participated in our expert meetings. During the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction which will take place in Geneva (8-13 of May) the Mexican government will come to share how it would like to address the gender perspective in DRR and secure budget for it.

Which organizations are using the guidelines?

They have been used as a reference by different stakeholders such as UN women, the  United Nations Development Group, the Australian Sustainable Development Gateway, the Global Gender Climate Alliance or the ICIMOD (Disaster Preparedness in the Himalayas)

Organizations such as the Caribbean Risk Management Initiative (CRMI) and the same IUCN have integrated Disaster Risk Reduction into Climate Change Adaptation.

What do CCA and DRR have in common?

They basically share the same concern, which is to reduce vulnerability and to build resilience to disasters in order to achieve sustainable development. The two issues are both crosscutting, need a multi-stakeholder approach and to be addressed through national and local development planning and programmes. We say DRR is a tool for CCA to assess and reduce the risks to cyclones, floods etc., so who works with climate change adaptation doesn’t have to reinvent ways but can use the existing ones we have and use them for adapting to climate change. The collaboration would also increase our efficiency and impact to address the challenge. Now more and more people working in climate change adaptation accept that DRR is a tool for it, something that was also advocated during the COP 15 and COP 16. Now the challenge is how to implement it on the ground and benefit poor communities, the ones mostly affected by climate change

What does it mean that DRR is a cross cutting issue?

The disaster vulnerability has been generated and increased through some development practices, such as the school example I mentioned before shows. Moreover if the students of that school don’t get the information about how to deal with a certain disaster they won’t know what to do and will therefore be more vulnerable. A good example of the opposite is the story of a British girl who went to Thailand for holidays just before the 2004 tsunami hit. She had just learned at school what the symptoms of tsunami were, so when she was there she noticed that what her teacher had told her was actually happening. She told her parents, who told the people around and they were all safe. If a teacher and a student can make such a big difference, it means we can mainstream disaster risk reduction into the education curricula.
If we look at health, then, during disasters a lot of hospitals stop functioning because they are damaged. If we integrate DRR to the health sector, small things such as putting the equipment in a higher floor, let alone building the hospital resilient to disasters and having a good evacuation plan would permit the hospital to keep functioning and saving people.
When a disaster occurs, many development sectors, even business, employment and tourism are affected. That is why it is a crosscutting developmental issue and all sectors should take disaster risk reduction into consideration.

How could the implementation of DRR and CCA collaboration be promoted?

I think that in most countries ruled by law a legislation to reinforce the synergy between the two to achieve sustainable development would be needed. Another important thing is policy. If you allocate CCA and DRR resources together, the two communities will discuss and realize that most of the times they are talking about the same things. I think that to really address the issue this has to be part of the national planning because it is not possible to do it only through international support.

Do you think gender, DRR and CCA issues would need to be addressed together?

Some things such as provide capacity training can be treated separately but at national level if we want to mainstream them into sustainable development planning and programmes, we need to address them together as a whole.

Both gender issues, DRR and CCA are long term issues and governments tend to look for short-term ones so they get re-elected, don’t they?

Yes, they are long term issues that will always go hand in hand with socioeconomic development, meaning there is no end. Without addressing them it is impossible to achieve sustainable development.
No, I believe there are politicians who are concerned with long-term issues as gender and climate change dominating the UN agenda show. Sometimes it is not only that governments don’t want to commit, they just don’t understand the subject, this is why we have a lot to do. I believe that in the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (Rio plus 20) these issues will be also further discussed and that we will make another big step forward. Things are changing, just not as fast as we all expect because of the complexity of these issues.

Is there anything relevant I have not asked you and that you would like to underline?

A gender-sensitive approach to DRR and CCA is both a challenge and an opportunity for achieving sustainable development. A challenge because gender issues have not been well understood and have been considered in isolation from other development sectors. The classical idea is that gender issues are women issues and women deal with it and we have a lot to do to advocate at policy, decision and law makers levels but also to the general public to make them understand this is wrong.
An opportunity because the more people understand, the more support will be received and we will be able to ensure women participation from policy making to implementation and will double the human resources we have.

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