Women in disasters: conference proceedings and recommendations



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The Gendered Terrain of Disaster: Through the Eyes of Men

Is gender a woman’s issue? While often less salient to men, gender shapes the work, relationships, health, leisure, language, sexuality, and family lives of men and women alike. Masculinity certainly shapes men’s social, psychological, material, and political responses to disaster. For many, power and control issues are particularly significant.

Disaster scholars, community groups, and disaster response and planning agencies rarely analyze the distinct vulnerabilities and capacities of men and women. Community-based disaster readiness recognizing masculinity and disaster concerns will include:


  1. targeted emergency communications recognizing gender norms in male

hazard awareness, household preparedness, emotional recovery, etc.

  1. access to nontraditional occupations and roles in emergency management

  2. community-based strategies for educating boys, teens and adult men about the

human impacts of disaster

  1. support services for men in caregiving roles, e.g. single fathers, disabled spouses

  2. organizational practices sensitive to men’s family responsibilities, e.g. in dual-career responder couples, dependent caregivers

  3. predisaster mental health initiatives targeting at-risk first-responders

  4. workplace-based programs identifying at-risk men severely impacted by disaster

  5. gender-sensitive disaster mental health outreach to especially vulnerable men, e.g. first responders, rural men in communities under stress, unemployed men, socially isolated men

An active partnership of men and women analyzing gender issues before, during and after disaster will help families and communities prepare for and mitigate the effects of disaster.



Contact information: Dr. Elaine Enarson, Disaster Preparedness Resources Centre, University of British Columbia, 2206 East Mall, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z3. Tel: (604) 929-6062. Email: enarson@unixg.ubc.ca

Disaster and Domestic Violence: Evaluating an Innovative Policy Response” (synopsis) Dr. Victoria Constance, Sam Houston University (formerly with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence)


Anticipating increased violence against women in the aftermath of massive flooding in the US Midwest in l993, the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence worked proactively to educate state officials about the risk to women and the needs of programs serving them in the aftermath of disaster. Dr. Constance’s presentation summarized both the need for the initiative and the process of bringing it about.

Drawing on first-person quotations from women in Missouri shelters, the presentation was a moving account of how floodwaters and violence were related in women’s lives. Women spoke of unemployment, lost housing, destroyed cars, increased tension at home and then violence, drawing the pieces of the story together in clear and simple language. Documenting women’s experience of both violence and flood impact was an essential part of the model: “What was really powerful for us…was to hear the women’s stories…We were battling a very large system that didn’t believe women were flood-affected, that didn’t believe that their being flood-affected had anything to do with their violence.”

These written stories from women were captured as part of the documentation and research phase of a major government grant to member programs of the Missouri Coalition. Recognizing that substance abuse and domestic violence are often linked, the Coalition successfully lobbied to extend a disaster recovery grant targeting substance abusers to shelters assisting women and children experiencing violence. Anticipating that the 35 flood-affected programs would shelter 660 persons statewide (including mothers with children), Dr. Constance reported that, at the end of the first year, 3,406 women and children found safe refuge during this very difficult postdisaster period. By any measure, this unique model of service delivery to flood survivors was successful.

The presentation concluded with the recommendations of the Missouri project, proposing a new model of collaboration between women’s services and emergency responder, specifically that:



  1. Federal disaster relief funding and program designs will recognize the immediate and long-term need for domestic violence crisis intervention services, intervention services, residential programs, and ongoing support services for disaster survivors concomitantly suffering from increases in substance abuse and increases in interpersonal violence;

  2. Planning for federal disaster relief funding and grant designs to states will utilize the community-level expertise and identification of disaster-affected populations served through domestic violence programs to effectively foster both immediate and long-term recovery;

  3. Domestic violence coalitions, recognized as a centralized source of planning, education, and service provision through federal disaster relief programs, will allow cost-effective and cooperative structures of service provision to disaster-affected communities. The involvement of these non-profit, non-governmental networks will further strengthen the abilities of state bureaucracies to effectively collaborate with community-based programs providing emergency services to disaster victims;

  4. Federal disaster relief funding of collaborative efforts among disaster response services of substance abuse treatment and domestic violence programs will enhance the services provided to disaster survivors. Such funding would enhance the cooperative aspects of cross-screening protocols, cross-referrals, cross-trainings and cross-utilization of services, especially as outlined in the unique Missouri model of service delivery.

The presentation highlighted the many barriers to overcome as this unique model was developed, from lack of visibility of violence against women in disaster and bureaucratic obstacles to the lack of a common language enabling communication between government officials and women in the battered women’s movement. The talk provided insight into how women might move beyond these barriers to work effectively with state mental health officials and others to meet the needs of women hard hit both by disaster and by domestic violence. The need for a common language was echoed throughout the conference in other presentations and in remarks from the floor.


For more information or to request copies of the paper in its entirety, contact the author at the address below.

Contact information: Dr. Victoria Constance, 385 Summer Star Court, The Woodlands, Texas, USA 77380. Email: vconsta@cornwerx.net.

Women In Disasters: Exploring the Issues“ Tracy Porteous, Director, BC Association of Specialized Victim Assistance & Counselling Services

Between the years of 1987 and 1994, I worked as the Executive Director of the Victoria Women's Sexual Assault Centre. Before that time I worked there in many other positions--from volunteer on the 24-hour crisis line, as someone who would accompany women who had just been sexually assaulted to the hospital and to the Police (if they so chose to report), to volunteer trainer and coordinator, to counsellor in the Emergency and Justice Related Support Program. I say all this by way of describing the experience of many feminists working at front line social service agencies providing a response to violence against women.

In fact there are numerous such agencies across BC, including 23 Sexual Assault/Women Assault Centres; 45 Specialized Victim Assistance Programs; 80 Stopping the Violence Counselling Programs; 80 Transition Houses and Safe Homes; and 50 Children Who Witness Abuse Programs. From a more general crime perspective, there are also approximately 60 Police based Victim Assistance Programs across the Province. These services have varying mandates, and for my focus this morning, I will be focusing more directly on the services specifically for women.

This network of women’s services is set up primarily to respond to women who have experienced sexual assault, sexual abuse in their childhood's, or abuse in the context of a relationship. These services are in large part the primary responder for all of the violence-related needs of the women in their communities across British Columbia. Many started out on the ‘70s and ‘80s as small grassroots women's organizations attempting to break the silence that has shrouded these issues historically.

Now, in the 1990s, these services have become large social service agencies responsible for large budgets and many staff. They are considered by Police, Crown, and the authorities for justice, social services, and health to be integral in the immediate crisis response and provision of ongoing services. These services coordinate their efforts in communities, and work along side the systems to ensure that women receive the services and responses they need. These services:



  1. acknowledge a woman's experience of violence

  2. understand that because of social attitudes, the stigmatization, and fears that they will be judged, and blamed and shamed, that women don't come forward to report these crimes

  3. recognize the varying ways that power and control within a patriarchal society result in oppression

  4. recognize the additional barriers and levels of oppression women face who have disabilities, who are women of colour, aboriginal women, lesbians, are old, are poor.

But before I talk about the services in more detail, I wish to outline all the components we have been working very hard on in developing a continuum of services. The services work to ensure that we have a Crisis Intervention Continuum. That is:



  1. Woman centered 24-hour crisis lines

  2. Immediate crisis intervention response at the hospital

  3. Protocols with hospitals, the police, prosecutors, other social services

  4. Policies and legislation that support women to report and provide for fair treatment and timely services

  5. Shelter

  6. Counselling (individual; groups)

  7. Support for family, friends and children

  8. Offender treatment programs

  9. Education and training for: front line staff, volunteers, policy makers, police, prosecutors and the judiciary, within universities, other professional groups, and the public

  10. Bridging and employment programs for women

  11. Support and debriefing for front line respondents--counsellors, police, hospital staff

  12. Self Defense Programs that include assertiveness training

  13. Prevention Programs


I also want to visit the incidence of violence against in women that happens every day in every city and every town in this country every day—women are maligned, humiliated, shunned, screamed at, kicked, punched, beaten, raped, physically disfigured, tortured, threatened with weapons and murdered.

We know that many people have a sense that violence against women exists

and that many women live with violence on a daily basis. However, we also know that many people do not have a real perception of the physical, psychological and spiritual repercussions of violence and how the experience and fear of violence affect the daily existence of all women.

Almost daily, newspapers, and radio and television broadcasts carry chilling reports of women harassed, women terrorized, women raped, women shot, women killed. And the accounts that reach the media are only a fraction of the events that never get reported and that remain invisible. We know by conservative estimates that:



  1. Women are singled out and sexually assaulted every 6 minutes in Canada. That works out to one in every five women!

  2. And that means in BC alone, we have over 200,000 women who either have been or will be sexually assaulted at some time in their lives. And of those women, 1 in 5 attempt suicide!

  3. One in 6 Canadian women are beaten by their male spouses.

  4. Two women are murdered every week in Canada by their male partners.

And those women who are more marginalized--such as First Nations women, women of colour, immigrant women, disabled women, poor women--are even more vulnerable to violence in their lives.

Having said all that, I want to share with you my story of coming to realize that Emergency Preparedness was something women service providers had to get involved with.

In the early part of 1990, a report came across my desk at the Sexual Assault Centre which was entitled, "Violence Against Women in the Aftermath of the October 17, 1989 Earthquake." The quake happened in Santa Cruz, just outside of San Francisco. The report was done by the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women and surveyed agencies which provide services to women who have been battered or raped to assess impact on clients. This report indicated that violence against women was a major concern after the disaster, in that::



  1. Santa Cruz Victim Witness Program reported that rape calls soared after the first 10 days after quake;

  2. Santa Cruz County Sex Assault Response Team reported that sex assaults went up 300% after the quake;

  3. Santa Cruz Police Department also reported an increase of sex assault and

domestic violence;

  1. Santa Cruz District Attorney reported that after the first week, the workload became very heavy. There were many sexual assaults and domestic violence cases reported. The office also dealt with its first reported gang rape case and reported that homicides related to domestic violence were also up;

  2. Santa Cruz Sheriff Department said, not only did crimes increase in the first month after the quake but the crimes were stranger than usual;

  3. A number of agencies were temporarily closed immediately following the quake. Some of their facilities were completely demolished;

  4. Once phone service was restored, services were getting crisis calls and requests for services from people stressed by the quake (loss of jobs, housing). Many people had "old wounds opened" and wanted service for issues unrelated to quake;

  5. For some women, the trauma of the quake reawakened the pain of previous

assaults and abuse. One agency reported that more adult survivors of childhood

sexual abuse were calling, more were experiencing traumatic memories and requests

for support groups and individual counselling increased, increasing the wait lists;


  1. Sexual Assault Survivors reaching out increased too with one agency receiving a 25% increase in crisis calls, including quake-related sex assaults, and others being re-traumatized as the quake raised feelings of the same powerlessness and loss of control that the original sexual assault;

  2. Most agencies recommended the importance of free/accessible counselling

to help people come to terms with their feelings about the quake;

  1. The Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Education Project reported that

once they reopened they found their clients were so overwhelmed by basic

survival, i.e., shelter, food, etc. that all the agency's efforts had to focus here;



  1. Crisis calls and requests for Temporary Restraining Orders for women who

were dealing with domestic violence dramatically increased;

  1. Child Abuse went up as well. It was said that parents who have a hard time coping with their children had an even harder time after the quake when their kids became regressive and clingy due to the traumatization;

  2. Loss of jobs, possessions, housing were narrowing women's choices. As we

know, increased uncertainty about one's financial independence made it even

harder for women to contemplate leaving abuse situations;



  1. Many women were reporting that their male partners discounted their fears

and men, because of their socialization, weren't expressing their fear—it was coming

out as anger;



  1. Community outreach and education was found to be essential. The problem was that while the general population was in need of education and information, such as the relationship between stress and violence against women and where people could go for help, all services were stressed to the limit in responding to the immediate crisis;

  2. The Men's Alternative to Violence Program expressed it in a phrase "The

quake is not excuse: call before you hit!" They urged that information on

coping with post-traumatic stress syndrome be made public along with

instructions on how to purify water and turn off the gas, and that an information

campaign on violence prevention should be part of the City's Emergency

Management Plan;


  1. Disaster relief funds look primarily at material damage infrastructure, housing, revenues. But who is looking at the need to fund response to deeper psychological issues that arise such as stress, anger, fear, system abuse. Disaster relief should include preventing a violent aftermath.


So, after reading this report, and knowing that my community and entire region is considered to be a high earthquake risk zone, I got to thinking:

What plans were in place with the mainstream services? What about our services, the need for preparing for increased need while things would be in a state of disarray?

Our building was located in a brick building, built in 1910, not seismically sound I doubted.



What about funding? At that time we had an approximately $600,000 budget, 30% of which came from charitable dollars—and in the event of a major disaster,

all those donation would probably go to disaster relief funds. So we needed to set up some advance agreement, I thought, with Government for increased funding in the event...and also with other women's services in Victoria and up island for possible help with staffing.



What about the staff? It would be likely that our building would be demolished--where would we work from? What about their safety? How would we be able to continue to pay salaries if our bookkeeper was injured or unable to get to our computers?

What about evacuation of clients and staff if it happened during office hours? What about women whose first language is not English--are the planners doing anything about reaching out to all communities?

What about insurance and any preventive measures we could take, and

education of the staff and readiness training? What about outreach education and what is our role on city committees dealing with these issues? Do the Police and Crown know that this is something we all need to be ready for?

What about women's transition houses? Would they still be standing, or

would those women be expected to be housed at the same relief centres that their abusive husbands went to? For that matter, what about all women in general, and considering the high percentage that have experienced violence, would they feel safe being housed at mainstream relief centres?



What about our crisis line, a critical link between women and services. What can be done if anything to get that link up and running as soon as possible?
I went to the Ministry of Attorney General to discuss my concerns and to ask that we start some dialogue at the provincial level to look at funding agreements and planning needs. There was “no money” nor much interest in something that may never happen. I also went to Victoria City Hall Social Planning Committee, which I was a member of at the time thinking—hey, all these people needed to realize that we were in need of some coordination and collaboration. So we struck a subcommittee to start to look at the issue. We invited all those who were responsible for emergency planning to a number of different meetings, where we proceeded to really get nowhere. It seemed to me that the attitude of most of the people responsible for emergency planning was at the same place the police attitude was before the issue of violence against women really came out of the closet.

Now I don't want to offend anyone here, and I am sure there are many now who are more open to looking at how we can all work together, but back then I found I ran into barrier after barrier. These barriers seemed to be fixed:



  1. on attitude, i.e. women have no place at these tables, e.g. "we can't be

concerned about special interest groups;”

  1. on denial, i.e. there was a real disbelief in the Santa Cruz report, and people

were unwilling to believe we would have the same problem here. Racist

attitudes, e.g. “our population may be different than that in the US;”



  1. on turf, i.e. there already were mainstream social services such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army with contracts with the provincial government to provide shelter, food, clothing, etc., and they didn't seem to be welcoming of our willingness and desire to get involved;

  2. on personal denial, i.e. a number of people I spoke with (people in Government, not especially those responsible for emergency planning) would become overwhelmed on a personal level when discussing earthquake risk in this area in general, and start talking about what they should do at home.

Our committee put forward the idea of getting emotional preparedness information in the PEP household brochure on what to do about gas and water, etc. While people thought that was a good idea, we were unable to see any concrete movement.



The subcommittee at city hall worked on this issue for 2 years, and I believe the fact that here we were, a women's service ready, willing and able to assist with planning for our specific constituency, and the fact that we got nowhere, suggests that the systemic barriers and problematic attitudes need to be addressed by the Province. I believe it puts us only in a win/win situation to be ready and able to respond. Not having women at all these emergency planning tables will only be a set up for not responding well to women and their specific needs.


So, what else do I know after that frustrating journey?

  1. Women's service providers need to be a the planning tables. We have tremendous knowledge about issues of violence that will assist the development of an effective community response. At these planning tables--ahead of time--press releases can be drafted letting people know that violence against women is a reality and information can be given to let people know where they can get help.

  2. Arrangements can be set up with Police so that they will be prepared to deal with an influx of reports.

  3. Better yet, information can be added to the Provincial Emergency Program brochure about emergency preparedness, letting people know what to expect psychologically. This way we can hope to possibly prevent some men from "acting out their fear" by committing aggression.

  4. We can talk to Mental Health who in some communities have emergency response volunteer counsellors or plans for outreach teams. Perhaps women's services staff can work with these teams so when violence issues come up they can be handled sensitively.

  5. We can plan ahead so that the women in transition houses won't be evacuated to general relief shelters, as that could be where the person who abuses or threatens them is sent.

  6. We can make arrangements with PEP and BC Tel to have our crisis lines be

designated a priority. This way there will be women's services accessible.

  1. We need to ensure that information is available in different languages and geared to different communities and for women who are deaf and hard of hearing. These women, if not the representatives of the women's services, need to be at the planning tables too.

  2. We can set up "mutual agreements" with neighbouring women's services, as the community hardest hit by disaster may be inundated with service demand and may need help, or they may have lost staff/volunteers in the disaster. Better to have a plan ahead of time.

  3. Also, it will be important that all the Staff/Volunteers/Board have knowledge of and a copy of the disaster response plan as we won't know who will be able to travel to a designated service area.

  4. We can work with the emergency planners and have our venue assessed as to

whether it would likely survive an earthquake or major flood. If not, where will you

run your service from?



  1. We need to prepare the women involved in our agencies, staff and volunteers, as the more prepared they and their families are, the sooner they will be able to turn their attention for others.

  2. We can designate staff and volunteers to report to their own neighbourhood relief centres to assist and be able to respond to violence-related issues.

  3. We can know ahead of time what we will do regarding pay day for staff and

employment standards and program standards.

  1. We need agreements now with the Provincial Government that in the event

of a disaster we will be guaranteed more funding. After the Vernon massacre, the

women's services there and the Police Victim Assistance Program had a full fledged

disaster on their hands. They were inundated with calls, people needing support and

information, and more women wanting to report domestic violence. Our Association

was on the phone asking them what they needed most. They said more staff so we

assisted in lobbying for a crisis grant so they could bring in some help. But this took

weeks and meanwhile they were alone, short of staff to deal with the situation. I have

been raising with the Ministry of Attorney General since then the need to have

something in place so assistance is automatic. In that time of crisis, women's

services shouldn't be having to fight and lobby and justify funding.
I could go on but mostly I want to say—this is exciting! I am glad we are here finally, after all these years, moving one step closer to being prepared and to developing the critical relationship with the Emergency Planning Community.

Contact information: Tracy Porteous, BC Association of Specialized Victim Assistance & Counselling Services, PO Box 8398, Victoria, BC, V8W 3S1. Tel: (250) 995-2166. Email: porteous@islandnet.com.

An Emergency Management Perspective” Ruth Harding, Regional Emergency Planning Coordinator, Greater Vancouver Regional District


Tracy Porteous wondered what emergency coordinators knew about this topic and I can tell you that at that time we knew nothing about it. Working at BC Tel I had made some inquiries internally about what we could do and I talked externally with lots of the organizations that I was connected to about how we might get these issues on the table—and no one was interested at that time, early on. Obviously today, with the municipal emergency planners that you’ve got here and the people from places like Emergency Social Services, I think those times have changed.

I have a few things I can suggest that you might want to follow up on when you go back to your agencies. First, Industry Canada has a telephone priority service--and I use the word ‘priority’ with a lot of clarification. In the event of a disaster, if the telephone infrastructure is still in place, in general know every one phone call to get in to a disaster area is worth l0 phone calls out. But it is people in the disaster area that need to call out, not the people outside of a disaster area that need to call in…

What you need to do is contact your municipal emergency planner and have them list one of your phone numbers as an essential line. The system is called Line Load Control. Your municipal planner will then send that information to the provincial government and it is collected provincially as a data base that is sent off to Industry Canada…If there are l0 lines open and 11 people pick up the phone and want to make a call, the first l0 who have the priority listing will get that priority and the minute one of those 10 hangs up then the next person will be able to get to call. We’re not talking about denying people services… Because of the amount of work involved, it’s not immediate—there is an approval process in place. It can take up to a year for that to get on the system…and it takes certainly a month or two for your municipality to get all of their phone numbers together…In the province it ultimately goes into the Provincial Emergency Program. The whole system is actually under the authority of Industry Canada. They are responsible for putting all of the numbers together on one data base. They don’t know who’s attached to which phone number. They just get the numbers and then that goes to BC Tel. The other thing that you need to be aware of is that if you’re using any other service provider I can’t guarantee that this will work.

The other thing you can do is contact BC Cellular. Cellular phones are expensive but they have a special program…For roughly $l0 a month you can have a cellular phone only for use in emergencies--you don’t get any cheap discount rates, but it’s specifically for emergencies. BC Cellular also does a priority listing and that is separate to what the province and the federal government do so you should contact BC Cellular as well about having those phones on a priority list….This is something to set up right now and not at the time of the disaster. Now if the disaster is such that the whole area is impacted, it could well be that we’ll lose a switch and you won’t have service anyway.

The other thing you need to know is that all these coin-operated call boxes, no matter where they are, are listed on that essential line. So even in your agencies, please don’t pick up your phone and when you have no dial tone immediately hit the return, because every time you hit that carriage return it classes as being a new call and is the same as putting the phone down and picking it up. It is those kinds of things that overload the switching mechanism that people come to think of as the phone service being ‘out.’ What we’ve actually found from the Northridge earthquake and Hurricane Andrew is that if you can hold on to that phone long enough, in most cases you will get dial tone. We’re so used to the dial tone already being there, that when it’s not we start messing around with the phone. You may have to hold on to the phone for two or three minutes.

Having asked around and finding that as emergency managers this wasn’t a focus, I think some of the suggestions I would have for you are:



  1. In all cases, go back and talk with your municipal emergency planning coordinator. That person is going to be your key for any emergency planning that you do. That person is your resource person. They’re not going to come and sit down with you and write your emergency plan, but they’ll be able to tell you where to get the resources. They may even have the information about when courses are being offered.

  2. The Justice Institute does lots of courses. You can get on the mailing list or call up the Emergency Management Division that Ross McIntyre is in and ask what courses are available. And I would also suggest that if there are enough of you wanting a very particular kind of course, as a group of associations approach the Justice Institute to actually develop those courses for you.

  3. You should also use the provincial emergency program. In the Lower Mainland and the Valley there are two or three areas…They are a resource for you. They have information and are also able to tell you what courses are available.

  4. There are organizations out there like EPICC (search for Emergency Preparedness for Industry and Commerce Council on the Internet). That’s an association made up of government, utilities, insurance agencies, people who are doing their emergency preparedness plans--anyone that wants to be a member can join. They also provide information to their memberships. They have newsletters and they also put on courses.

  5. When you’re talking to your emergency program people, there are several things you need to know. You need to know about alternative locations. Your municipality will have predefined locations that they’ll want to use as a first point of call, whether it’s a reception centre or an evacuation point. You need to talk to them and let them know the specialized needs that your community has. You may discover that your municipality can’t address those needs, but may be able to if you work hand in hand with them. And if they can’t, then you know that that’s something that you’re going to have to do. So who is it you contact? Maybe you’re in a building that has a landlord. Go to your landlady, tell her the specialized, secure location that you need and how many people you might possibly need to have in there. Given the earlier presentations, you can probably estimate that your numbers are going to increase.

  6. From an emergency management point of view, what we have found is that we have a six-week window when an event happens, whether it’s the earthquake in Kobe, Hurricane Andrew…We’ve all got programs that we want to happen, we’ve all got things that we need funding for—and nobody listens. But the minute there’s an earthquake, you can get things in and everyone wants this to happen. Now in your instance, disasters for you include the Vernon massacre and the Montreal massacre. I’m sure the need for your services increase. So you might want to look at those kinds of windows of opportunity. If there is a disaster somewhere…if it works for your agency, use that as leverage to say ‘look, this is what we’re talking about, it could happen here, this is what we’ve been trying to tell you.’

  7. Make sure you have earthquake insurance, not just for your contents but to pay your staff and get yourselves alternative location.

  8. As groups with the like service you provide, maybe you want to do agreements in kind with your like organizations. If somebody has a bigger crisis than you, talk to them…It could even be a fire on the street that your building is on that doesn’t give you access to your building. Say ‘look, in the event of a major crisis or disaster, would you be able to take one of our people and give us one phone so that we could still have some kind of outreach?’

  9. Talk to your telephone service provider. There is a cost to it but you can get 1-800 numbers. They don’t have to work here in BC. If you’re a client, you don’t care if the actual switch is in Alberta, they’re using your phone number.

You need to think about those kinds of things. There are two more things I just want to touch on that have to do with funding. I think we need to be creative…If it’s not already on your agenda, through the courts and the Attorney General, you might want to put on the table questions of having the abusers pay money to your organizations that are supporting the people that they have abused, as part of their penalties. You represent a constituency of hundreds and thousands of women out there—get their signatures. If it means dedicating a volunteer to writing letters monthly, if you’ve got a few thousand letters each month going to your MLA or to Glen Clark, it’s got to have some effect. So let’s make the users pay for the services that we’re providing.

Last but not least, think about referenda so that you put the question to the populace in your municipality saying ‘Are you willing to spend an extra 50 cents per household per year to fund a group of women’s service providers?’

So those are some of the things that you can do. And from the emergency management perspective I would encourage you to immediately start talking to your municipal and your provincial emergency managers and coordinators.



Contact information: Ruth Harding, RR #1, AB-39, Bowen Island, BC V0N 1G0. Tel: (604) 947-2794. Email: rharding@sfu.ca.

From the Margins to the Center: Women and Mitigation” Dr. Elaine Enarson, Visiting Scholar, Disaster Preparedness Resources Centre, University of British Columbia.


What makes a community safer? Certainly structural mitigation like dikes and building materials, sound public policy and land use planning, international dialogue and collaboration, and innovative emergency communications technologies all play a part. But disaster reduction also means addressing root causes of vulnerability.

The l990s brought a new focus on community development--if only to stretch scarce dollars beyond emergency relief to reduce future costs through more sustainable social and environmental development. NGOs argue from their field experience that effective long-term disaster recovery projects must be designed to empower as well as assist impacted groups. Whether in Afghanistan or British Columbia, recovery projects must enhance human, social, and ecological development and be designed with the active participation of locally vulnerable populations.

Yet hazards mitigation and management in Canada and the US is still largely regarded as the province of experts, certainly more technical and structural than “political” and well removed from the question of gender equality. I want to discuss an alternative vision today in which disaster mitigation is a project of social organization and social justice. In Disaster Mitigation: A Community Based Approach, Andrew Maskrey writes (1989:40):

[I]nstead of dealing only with the effects of hazards, mitigation must also address the underlying causes of vulnerability. In addition to physical measures such as reinforcing buildings or raising dykes, mitigation must become a developmental activity which focuses on factors such as land ownership, wealth distribution, rapid urbanisation, and the destruction of natural resources and seeks to address the real causes of poverty and underdevelopment. (emphasis added)

Because vulnerability theory recognizes gender inequality as a root cause of vulnerability, it follows that gender equity is a key development activity. Gender-fair emergency management demands inclusive, democratic, and participatory models of community-based disaster mitigation which fully engage women not only as victims but as resourceful community actors.

We are on the right track. The current view that “all mitigation is local” encourages flexible community networks, supported by different levels of government and with open membership. But, as a key US document on mitigation states, “ the core would probably be those involved with local and state planning, natural resource and emergency management, business groups and technical specialists and scientists from appropriate public and private entities.” Are you included? Are the women you represent or their interests represented?

In contrast, gender-inclusive community-based mitigation is a grassroots people-based project, integrating disaster readiness into issues around which communities are already organizing, from sustainable resource management, fair housing, land rights, or barrier-free accommodation to violence against women. In this model, community organizing for more egalitarian and sustainable societies is at the heart of both community development and disaster mitigation—and women’s active participation is essential to success.

To return to my original question, communities are safer and more disaster resilient when they are more egalitarian: when women and men work together across racial and class divisions than when women are unemployed because child care centres were flooded out or in battered women’s shelters because they bear the brunt of their partners’ despair. Disaster-resilience is advanced by working toward more egalitarian households, neighborhoods, and societies. Our communities are safer when they are more integrated: when people draw on informal networks and relationships to work together without the rule book and across cultural, political, generational, and gender barriers. Building networks and coalitions is essential to effective disaster mitigation. And our communities are safer when they are more empowered: when all the “stakeholders” have a voice and vulnerable groups sit at the table with planners to identify, articulate, and advocate for their own needs. Community organizing to empower marginalized populations mitigates disaster too.



Getting there from here: models from the US, Africa, and Pakistan

In l995, the Central American Resource Center and other community-based organizations in Los Angeles formed the Emergency Preparedness and Response Network of Los Angeles, California (ENLA). They were responding to hard-learned lessons:

The experiences from the last two major emergencies in LA, the civil unrest of April 29, 1992 and the Northridge Earthquake of Jan 17, 1994, have shown that low-income and minority communities need to be more prepared to respond to crisis situations. During disasters, these communities are hit the hardest and have fewer resources available to recover.

At that time, 32 agencies signed on and created Agreements of Collaboration providing for agencies to share services and assistance in case of disaster, from shelter and food to information. Later these agencies united as the Emergency Network of LA in order to: “enhance preparedness for and coordinated response to disasters by facilitating linkages among LA County Community-Based Organizations and Government and the Private Sector.” ENLA purchased first aid supplies like cots and ham radios and member agencies participate in quake education and preparedness trainings using ENLA’s multi-language booklets and videos.

Recognizing that the “people who are most at risk from disasters are the same people who are vulnerable in their everyday lives,” this grassroots group targets the poor, people living with disabilities, those unable to effectively advocate for themselves in English or who are undocumented. The network accomplishes its work through functional groups in such areas as food, homeless services, health services, etc. Responding to reports of women’s experiences in Miami and elsewhere, ENLA has recently added a women’s committee. They plan “to work to develop the disaster awareness and skills of organizations that serve women,” noting that women provide “a large part of the leadership in formal and informal human service networks on a day-to-day basis” and that women’s organizations “offer a natural and effective means to transmit recovery information to many women who would otherwise be outside the information loop.” This regional coalition is an excellent model of community-based and gender-sensitive disaster mitigation.

Women Will Rebuild Miami was an ad hoc women’s coalition which emerged in response to the gendered politics of recovery after Hurricane Andrew—specifically, the elite male-dominated private group (We Will Rebuild). This informal group was responsible for distributing millions of dollars in private donations and, later, government relief funds. With origins in a local feminist collective, Women Will Rebuild criticized the exclusionary practices of the good-old-boy network and its priorities. Over 40 women’s organizations eventually joined the coalition, which came to represent all major ethnic, political, religious, and social groups in the area. Adopting consensual decision-making and seeking ethnic diversity, the group worked to increase women’s representation on the We Will Rebuild executive committee and to target ten percent of all donations to meet the needs of women and children. While neither goal was met, most participants concurred when interviewed five years later that women’s needs during and after a major disaster would never again be invisible. Gender bias was identified as a barrier in disaster relief and new bonds were formed between women from many different communities in Miami.

Women Will Rebuild is an excellent example of disaster reduction through community building—mitigating the impacts of future hurricanes by raising the salience of gender issues in disaster, bringing disaster issues to women’s organizations, and laying the groundwork for more integrated response among women and between women’s groups and other relief groups.



PATTAN is an NGO working in flood-prone areas of South Asia. Recognizing that the normal conditions of daily life (e.g., economic dependence, social invisibility, low employment rates, limited mobility, and marginalization from village decision-making) made floods especially hard on women, the agency addressed these conditions in their relief work. They hired a gender-balanced staff, trained them in gender issues, and formed women-only village committees when they found local village committees dominated by male elites. Local women were given responsibility for distributing food and were registered as the heads of household. This entitled them to receive food items directly, helping to ensure that aid reached women and children in need and protecting women from sexual harassment at the hands of men distributing relief supplies.

PATTAN also implemented an innovative rehousing strategy. Local women were trained in basic book-keeping and given responsibility for handling cash and record-keeping as housing loans were repaid. Their input was solicited into the design of new houses. Most significantly, postdisaster homes financed through PATTAN loans were co-owned by wives and husbands. This strategy both assisted families and empowered women: “When my husband fights with me and tells me to leave the house, I turn around and tell him that he cannot do it since the house belongs to me too” (South Asian Women: Facing Disasters, Securing Life: 60). Housing insecurity was reduced and women have developed new individual and collective strengths. This is an excellent example of how gender-fair disaster mitigation left a flooded community more disaster-resilient.

Finally, a recent workshop conducted in ten Southern African countries illustrates the utility of gender analysis in grassroots mitigation. Projects described in Reducing Risk:

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