From Transition to Transformation – a Gendered Approach to Humanitarian Response

By The Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre)
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore
There are biological, social and economic conditions and processes that make women more vulnerable to natural disasters such as floods, droughts and tropical storms. All of which affect the Southeast Asian region frequently and intensively. From having limited options to begin with to prolonged suffering post-disaster, women in disaster-prone areas in the region are impacted significantly longer and hence have longer physical, psychological and emotional recovery times. There is much research and knowledge-pooling between international aid organisations, governments, research institutes and local non-governmental organisations when it comes to outlining best practices, training and capacity-building and carrying out joint exercises in natural disaster relief and recovery and rebuilding. But what has not happened is the move from mere transition – from post-disaster to ‘peace time’ – to transformation in the way assessments, operations and policies are realigned, informed by different gendered experiences. So, to put it bluntly, natural disasters become a wasted opportunity for change.  If we persist in going back to how things were, we have lost the opportunity to change what does not work. Unfortunately, much of reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts, vis-à-vis women, involve returning to how things were done before. Women are included but procedurally sidelined. And this despite the fact that women tend to be over-represented in fatalities and among displaced groups.Humanitarian crises are sites of displacement, marginalisation, control, and, unfortunately, the sad truth of capitalising on human suffering; essentially the trafficking of women and children in the aftermath of disasters.  It goes without saying then that it also becomes a site that magnifies inequalities. However, to say that there is no recognition or appreciation of the gendered (read women’s) dimension of humanitarian crises would be untrue. A more apt description would be not enough work is being done in this area. By definition suffering or the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship are equally (but not identically) experienced by men and women in any form of disaster or crises situation. But these enormous life tragedies are made known to the world through the faces of women and children. Except how much have we examined the altered lives of women in the aftermath of these events? Impacts upon the lives of women affect lives and experiences of men. A gendered approach is not just about women’s experiences but about how these experiences affect the lives of men, children and elderly; essentially all members of society.  It is this relational analysis that is limited in disaster research in the region.

The lack of curiosity in women’s experiences is a peculiarity in itself.  On 13 September 2016, at the 28th ASEAN Summit, ASEAN leaders signed the “ASEAN Declaration on One ASEAN One Response: ASEAN Responding to Disasters as One in the Region and Outside the Region.” The declaration reiterates ASEAN’s readiness to work together to build a community that responds effectively to natural disasters. The institution’s vision is to build safer communities and create a disaster-resilient region. This becomes a challenge when women are not explicitly integrated into this resilience plan. The vision is noble, but how we go about making it a reality can be troublesome when more than half the population is not intimately involved in the planning and implementation of goals and targets. The question then is: what would happen if we acknowledged both men’s and women’s points of view as a starting point for understanding people’s experiences in crises such as natural disasters? Might we come up with better – and here we should read this as effective and sustainable – policies in recovery and rehabilitation efforts if we thought along these lines? What different approaches might we take that make our disaster response policies efficacious? When we have a more inclusive analysis of experiences in humanitarian crises, we paint a more accurate portrait of men’s and women’s struggles during these events. It becomes necessary to pursue this line of enquiry to have targeted response strategies, effective recovery plans and sustainable rebuilding policies.  If these are the aims then this is the direction disaster policy research in the region should take.

International Women’s Day falls on March 8 every year. The day celebrates the social, cultural, economic and political achievements of women. Some countries in this region – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – have even designated the day an official holiday. One key area where the strength and resilience of Southeast Asia’s women can be harnessed is in the area of disaster response.