Empowering Women through Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction

The 8th of March marked International Women’s Day. Although the day is meant as an international celebration of women it also acts as a reminder that women still suffer disproportionally from gender-based inequalities and vulnerability. Some of the factors that create greater susceptibility to vulnerabilities and inequality are the lack of education, denial of rights and limited involvement in decision-making processes. Humanitarian crises and natural disasters can create fertile ground on which these underlying factors grow into severe vulnerabilities for women. A greater involvement of women in decisionmaking is believed to be key in ensuring good governance and societal stability.

Southeast Asia and the ACWC

Violence against women and gender inequalities are serious problems in Southeast Asia. An example is the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar where women are increasingly exposed to sexual violence and human trafficking. Other forms of inequality such as disparities in education, poverty, resource allocation, and lack of access to health and sanitation facilities create exposure to risks and a general low quality of life for many women in the region. According to UN Women, in East and Southeast Asia, violence against women mainly occurs in the form of domestic violence, marital rape, child marriages and human trafficking. In order to tackle these challenges the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) established the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) in 2010.

The ACWC kicked off the year of 2017 with its fourteenth meeting on 28 February. The scope of the meeting was to review the status of projects and activities under the ACWC Work Plan 2012- 2016 and to agree on new programmes and projects to include in the ACWC Work Plan 2016-2020. It was agreed to continue the work on the previously established thematic areas such as, among others, gender equality in education and gender mainstreaming, and to agree on additional focus areas especially related to the issue of Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) in the ASEAN region. ACWC’s agenda also includes the relation between women, climate change and disaster relief. However, the link made between those is limited to regarding women as victims affected by disasters and climate change rather than as them being part of the solution.

Women and Disaster Risk Reduction

Unequal treatment among different genders is rooted in the assumption that women represent the ‘weaker sex’ and must be protected for their own wellbeing. This undertone of a strong patriarchal mindset, unfortunately, creates vulnerabilities, which are exacerbated during and after disasters.

Activists and scholars are therefore calling for a paradigm shift, namely, to see women not only as victims but as a powerful resource in building good governance, resilience and sustainable development. In Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) there is a need for greater involvement of women. According to The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for DRR, Mr. Robert Glasser, “too few countries in disaster-prone parts of the world have a clear understanding of how gender inequality contributes to higher death rates among women and girls in disasters and this has to change”. He further stressed that it is impossible to reduce disaster losses without a more inclusive approach to DRR.

The Way Forward

Southeast Asia, one of the most disaster prone regions in the world, has the responsibility to make its populations less vulnerable and more resilient to disasters. The involvement of women in disaster risk management will create the opportunity to tackle underlying risks of inequality and build resilience towards future disasters. An example of such is to involve women in the design of early warning systems. During the Bangladesh floods following Cyclone Gorky in 1991, many women died because they were not able to access information due to the fact that the warning was transmitted over mobile phones which were mostly in the possession of the men. The way forward is to include an understanding of DRR, climate change adaptation and women’s rights into school curriculum at an early stage and to actively make women part of the solution by including them in decision-making processes. A more inclusive approach to DRR and climate change adaptation would not only make women less vulnerable but empower them as actors of change and resilience.

With the commitment to the ACWC Work Plan 2016-2020, the Southeast Asian region continues its efforts to end any type of violence against women. The empowerment through women’s education and their involvement in decision-making processes is vital to making Southeast Asian women and their communities more resilient.