Women in disasters: conference proceedings and recommendations

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Exploring the Issues Seminar
May 5-6, 1998

Vancouver, British Columbia

Emergency Management Division B.C. Association of Specialized Victim

Justice Institute of British Columbia Assistance and Counselling Programs.


Gender and Disaster: What are the Issues?

Elaine Enarson 5

Women’s Voices in the Red River Valley Flood

Karen Grant 6

When Gender Matters: Women’s Crisis and Recovery Needs

Elaine Enarson 7

Disaster and Domestic Violence: Evaluating an Innovative

Policy Response

Victoria Constance 14

Women In Disasters: Exploring the Issues

Tracy Porteous 16

An Emergency Management Perspective

Ruth Harding 23

From the Margins to the Center: Women and Mitigation

Elaine Enarson 26

Hard Lessons Learned in Manitoba: A Personal Account

Susan Goyer 31



Women’s complex roles and resources in disaster have not yet been fully recognized nor the special needs of vulnerable women fully incorporated into disaster planning and response. The l995 focus on women and children as “keys to prevention” during the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) highlighted the need to better understand gender issues in disaster contexts.
Toward this end, a l990 conference on women and disaster was conducted in Costa Rica targeting Latin America and Caribbean societies, followed in 1993 by a symposium of women’s groups gathered to consider disaster issues in Queensland, Australia. More recently, a l997 conference in Pakistan provided a South Asian focus on sustainable development, disaster reduction, and gender equality as well as media work in disasters.
Sponsored by the Justice Institute of British Columbia in conjunction with the BC Association of Specialized Victim Assistance and Counselling Programs, the BC conference on “Women in Disaster: Exploring the Issues” brought a uniquely North American perspective on women’s experiences in disaster. The diverse audience ensured wide-ranging expectations, lively debate, and varying perspectives, interests, and needs. Over 130 women participated, including provincial emergency managers, voluntary relief workers, local emergency practitioners, graduate students in disaster social science, municipal and provincial officials, women’s service staff, and disaster victim/survivors.
Conducted over a two-day period, the event included academic presentations by disaster researchers, community responders, and keynote speakers from Canadian and US women’s services, informal networking, and four break-out sessions focused on identifying key issues and identifying action steps. Experienced local emergency practitioners served as voluntary panelists and facilitators for each of the four workshops.
Financial support from the BC Ministries of Human Resources, Attorney General, and Women’s Equality enabled the active participation of two key groups, among others: volunteer relief workers from the provincial Emergency Social Services agency; and staff from sexual assault centres, transition homes, specialized police-based victim assistance programs, and Stop the Violence counselling services. Two keynote presentations and many workshop discussions addressed violence against women after disaster and the needs of service-providing organizations working with vulnerable women.
Recognizing that many gender issues arise for other women’s services, for professional women in emergency management, and for male victims and responders, this forum primarily highlighted issues facing women relief volunteers and women at risk of violence. Participants called for more attention to these related issues in future symposia and for more opportunities for networking. Toward this end, contact information was collected and later distributed to all participants.

These proceedings summarize or reproduce keynote presentations, identify workshop themes and participants, and include recommendations forwarded at the conclusion of the conference.

In addition, a resource handbook was distributed to conference participants. This packet included background readings, planning guidelines, a bibliography on gender and disaster in disaster social science, and other resource material.
To order copies or for additional copies of these proceedings, contact: Ross McIntyre, Emergency Management Division, Justice Institute of BC, 715 McBride Boulevard, New Westminster, BC, V3L 5T4. Phone: (604) 528-5790. Fax: (604) 528-5798.

Gender and Disaster: What are the Issues?” (synopsis) Dr. Elaine Enarson, Visiting Scholar, Disaster Preparedness Resources Centre, University of British Columbia

This overview focused on forces gendering the social experience of disasters. Power relations of age, race or ethnicity, social class, and gender shape the social experience of disasters just as they frame that “normal” life which is so profoundly disrupted by events like floods, toxic spills, or earthquakes. These gender patterns have significant effects on community disaster planning, response, and recovery.
Drawing on original interview data and photographic overhead transparencies of women in disaster contexts, dominant media images of women in disaster were presented and critiqued. From disaster movies like Volcano to newspapers and picture books portraying women in floods and hurricanes, women are represented primarily as passive, tearful, and needy victims—when they are depicted at all. Like the female geologist trying to warn emergency managers about an impending volcanic eruption, the concerns of wives and mothers are often trivialized as female hysteria. Moving furniture out of the way of flood waters is interpreted as bothersome female “panic” rather than rational household preparedness.
International disaster researchers are now documenting the wide range of skills and resources women bring when individuals, households, organizations, and communities must cope with disasters. These include household preparation and clean-up, providing or arranging evacuation space and services, on-site search and rescue, indirect disaster response jobs like nurse and crisis line worker, home repair and refurnishing, the paperwork of the relief and recovery process, voluntary disaster relief work, and informal political leadership during the recovery period. Marginalized in disaster social science, emergency management organizations, and the public imagination, women’s work is, in fact, not marginal but central to preparing for, responding to, recovering from, and mitigating community disasters.
Certainly, many women are hit hard by disaster and gender relations in culture and society tend to put women at special risk, some more than others. But focusing on women primarily as victims to the neglect of their capacities and resources misrepresents the actual experiences of women and men and negatively affects the culture and practice of emergency management.

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.
Women’s Voices in the Red River Valley Flood” (synopsis) Dr. Karen Grant, Associate Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Manitoba
This presentation summarized the findings of an on-going study conducted by Drs. Karen Grant and Nancy Higgitt of the University of Manitoba, based on interviews with 26 flood-impacted women in the Winnipeg area. The study is designed both to document the health and social impacts of the 1997 Red River flood on women and to examine the nature of women’s work on behalf of their families and households.
Following an overview of the flood’s impact on southern Manitoba and analysis of the social nature of disaster, the presentation turned to the nature of women’s work. The women interviewed undertook a wide range of disaster work, from temporary diking to “countless hours in the kitchen, preparing meals, serving meals, and cleaning up after meals” to feed the sandbaggers. They also tried to prepare their households before the flood and responded to emotional needs during and after the crisis. “Keeping things normal under abnormal circumstances was a full-time job, and for many, often easier said than done.” A year after the flood, “many hours each and every day are still spent on the 1997 flood.”
This rich qualitative data documented how the flood affected women’s health, families, and neighborhoods, and provided insight into women’s behind-the-scenes caring, negotiating, and mediating roles. The authors hope that as more women tell their stories, women and men alike will better appreciate the significance of “women’s work” during crisis and “the need to provide the material and socio-emotional resources to women so that they can do this essential work.”
Dr. Grant concluded with a reminder that “Women need to be included—not just to pick up the pieces—but to help frame how communities will respond in the first place. Women need to be at the table, as partners in the decision-making process. They have much wisdom to bring to how we deal with disasters.”
For more information or to request copies of the paper in its entirety, contact the author at the address below.

Contact information: Dr. Grant, Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Manitoba, 315 Fletcher Argue Bldg., 28 Trueman Walk, Winnipeg, Manitoba, RST 5V5. Tel: (204) 474-9912. Email: kgrant@cc.umanitoba.ca.

When Gender Matters: Women’s Crisis and Recovery Needs” Dr. Elaine Enarson, Visiting Scholar, Disaster Preparedness Resources Centre, University of British Columbia

In a recent assessment of 20 years of disaster studies, American sociologist Dennis Mileti addresses all nations when he concludes (Natural Hazards Observer, September l997, p.3):

We ask the nation to acknowledge that we will never be totally safe from disasters. We ask that those who are charged with making national and local decisions acknowledge that they are designing the disasters that future generations will experience. And we seek to begin a nationwide conversation that will lead to actions that link hazard mitigation and disaster response to the broader goals of sustainability (emphasis added).

In this spirit, vulnerability theorists strive to identify the root causes embedded in the routine structures of society which transform natural events like mudslides, bush fires, or cyclones into human calamities. Among these are economic globalization and rising economic insecurity, hyperurbanization, and environmental degradation. Complex and interdependent technological systems (as, for example, in the l998 Canadian ice storm); aging transportation infrastructure and nuclear facilities; population trends also increase people’s vulnerability to hazardous conditions, e.g. our more mobile and transient population with rising proportions of single mothers, poor people, migrants, refugees, and households headed by the frail elderly.

Because these root causes reflect deeply embedded economic, social, and political trends across the globe, sociologist Eli Quarantelli and others conclude: “The future will not simply be the past revisited; it will get worse.” A cursory glance at recent headlines from BC suggest the patterns: “New report indicates many in New Westminster are living on the margins, sleeping on the street or fighting to keep accommodation.” “Thousands of Lower Mainland immigrant women are grindingly poor, exploited as home workers.” “Ever-growing elderly population will swamp existing institutions in next century.” The relentless accounts of violence against women in our morning newspapers (including violence in reception centres during the recent ice storm) reminds us how vulnerable women and children are both to violence and to disaster.

The Social Construction of Disaster Vulnerability

People, households, and settlements do not experience the same disaster event the same way: some are far more vulnerable than others both to immediate impact and to long-term recovery. Case studies and accounts from the field indicate that pre-disaster resources are reliable indicators of disaster vulnerability. Predictably, the postdisaster needs of many social groups will exceed the resources available to them as significant resources are differentially distributed within societies. Key survival and recovery resources include:

  1. income, savings, credit, insurance

  2. land, livestock, tools

  3. secure employment; job skills

  4. health and nutrition; food security

  5. appropriate and secure housing

  6. functional literacy; bureaucratic skills

  7. extended households; strong kin networks

  8. low ratio of adult dependency in household

  9. access to public and/or private transportation

  10. time

  11. social networks; community integration

  12. political power and influence

  13. power in the household

  14. access to knowledge, skills, money for home preparation

  15. access to emergency shelter; emergency communication networks

These key survival and recovery resources are distributed unequally across societies and between societies. Accordingly, relative disaster vulnerability reflects hazardousness of place in combination with hazardous life conditions created by power relations in households, communities, and societies. In similarly hazardous environments, not all social groups are impacted identically. Those most hard hit are likely to be:

  1. recent residents, immigrants, migrants

  2. socially isolated households

  3. non-speakers of dominant community language

  4. poor and low-income households

  5. single heads of households

  6. seniors; frail elderly

  7. children and youth

  8. physically or mentally disabled

  9. physically or mentally ill

  10. undocumented residents

  11. refugees

  12. indigenous populations and subordinated racial/ethnic groups

  13. tourists/transients

  14. institutionalized populations; transition homes

  15. renters; homeless residents

  16. women

Why Gender? Why Women?

Though gender assumes no universal meaning, gender relations significant affect the daily lives of women and men—before, during, and after a calamitous event like a nuclear accident, earthquake, tornado, or toxic spill. On balance, men tend to have greater access to key survival and recovery resources and hence are less vulnerable than women to disaster.

Significantly, population trends indicate women are likely to become progressively more vulnerable. Among the main social trends impacting women disproportionately are an aging and feminizing population, rising rates of female-headed households, increasing mobility, migration and immigration, declining “free time” in dual-income households, rising rates of female poverty, homelessness, and violence against women, and the erosion of public-sector social and human services significant to women.

Like men, women are not impacted identically by disaster but have differential access to key survival and recovery resources. Disaster planners and responders can anticipate that these groups of women in their communities will be especially hard hit:

  1. poor or low-income women

  2. senior women/frail elders

  3. women with disabilities; severe mental or physical illness

  4. women heading households/single mothers/widows

  5. refugee women and the homeless

  6. indigenous women/minority women

  7. immigrant women/women with language barriers

  8. isolated women/rural women

  9. women with large families

  10. battered women/women at risk of violence

Violence against women and disaster

Reports from service agencies indicate that women are at increased risk of violence in the aftermath of disaster, for example in the wake of Saguenay floods and the l998 ice storm and following recent US earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods.

Domestic violence and sexual assault centres report increased case management with existing clients and women newly impacted both by violence and disaster. Though decreasing during the immediate crisis, violence against women may increase during the lengthy recovery period—as long as six months or a year after the event. Because disasters can force women back into dangerous relationships, increase financial and housing stress, and re-traumatize recovering women, the postdisaster needs of disaster victims who are also at risk of violence include:

  1. physical security during crisis (72 hours) if living in shelter

  2. safe and secure evacuation space for women in shelter

  3. access to appropriate physical and mental health services

  4. increased children’s services

  5. continuity in counselling relationship, more support groups

  6. assistance securing disaster relief funds and goods

  7. legal, employment, and financial assistance

  8. affordable, safe housing in the postdisaster housing market

Victim service agencies will be significant ‘backstage’ disaster responders to women and children in crisis after disaster. They may also be directly and indirectly impacted. Mitigating the effects of disaster includes planning to identify their needs and support their work throughout the disaster cycle.

Women’s services respond

“What we give them is all that they have,” a domestic violence worker in an active seismic zone said of the losses suffered from a simple fire in the shelter. For women in crisis, transition houses and counselling programs offer lifeline services and potentially life-saving safe space. Other women’s services provide vital support and resources to women challenged by the conditions of everyday life, among them:

  1. immigrant women’s services and First Nations women’s groups

  2. community women’s centers and senior centres

  3. advocates for homeless women, domestic workers, migrants

  4. disabled women’s groups

  5. support groups for single mothers, widows, HIV-positive women and others

  6. government bureaus and departments

  7. women’s coalitions, political groups

  8. child care/dependent care networks

  9. crisis lines and other community mental health services

What happens to women’s services—to their staff, facilities, volunteers, equipment, supplies, board, clients, finances, and funding agencies—in the aftermath of a major ice storm, earthquake, tornado or flood? While the emergency needs of those in child care facilities, schools, nursing homes, hospitals and similar institutions have been identified, the needs of women’s services and their clients have not.

Because the demand for social and human services increases during disaster recovery and women are particularly hard-hit, women’s services play a key role in long-term community recovery—yet must respond with reduced resources, including:

  1. on-site emergency sheltering and response (who planned?)

  2. disrupted communications (where is everybody?)

  3. damaged or destroyed office equipment, furniture, vehicles, tools, supplies, files, computer disks (how to replace?)

  4. damaged or destroyed facility; evacuation and relocation (how? where?)

  5. reduced staff, volunteer time, board time, available overtime (who?)

  6. increased staff turn-over, absenteeism, conflict, stress (how to help?)

  7. disrupted grant deadlines, fund-raisers (now what?)

  8. disrupted community and interagency networks (what’s happening?)

  9. invisibility in recovery process; competition for scarce funds (why women?)

Women and community response to disaster

Assessing community resources such as grassroots women’s services as well as vulnerabilities, like local patterns of violence against women, is an important part of disaster planning. In addition to being highly vulnerable, many women are also active and resourceful disaster responders.

In their personal relationships, households, workplaces, and communities, women’s gendered life experience makes them central players in disaster response and recovery. They participate actively (if “off stage” or behind closed doors) in disaster response and recovery through:

  1. household, workplace, and family preparation, response and recovery

  2. emergency site organizational, physical, and emotional skills

  3. ‘backstage’ labor in support of front-line responders

  4. ‘comprehensive responder’ occupations like nursing or primary schools

  5. women’s services and community response agencies

  6. accessing relief agency resources

  7. community knowledge

  8. kin and friendship networks

  9. ‘hands on’ caregiving skills and responsibilities to children, the ill or disabled, and other dependents needing attention through the disaster cycle

  10. ‘emotion work’ with children, partners, friends, and disaster-impacted clients or customers during evacuation and recovery

  11. recovery resources from women’s professional and service organizations

  12. voluntary roles in neighborhood emergency preparedness and communication

  13. occupational roles as emergency practitioners

  14. formal and informal political leadership in disaster-impacted areas

  15. community organization in “emergent response” groups

  16. crisis workers responding to critical human and social needs, e.g. hotline staff and volunteers

When Gender Matters: Planning For Women Though The Disaster Cycle

Understanding gender relations in impacted populations helps practitioners organize gender-sensitive programs and policies. Case studies from the developed and developing world indicate that women have specific needs before, during, and after disaster events. This evidence indicates that planning and response agencies in the private and public sectors should:

  1. Conduct self-assessments for strengths and weaknesses in gender equity

  2. Provide staff training in cultural diversity, gender relations and economic issues through the disaster cycle

  3. Ensure gender-fair work practices and policies

  4. Strive for gender balance and cultural diversity in employment across organizational departments and hierarchies

  5. Identify and meet the needs of women as responders and victims

The specific needs of women through emergencies will vary and can best be assessed by gender-sensitive vulnerability and capacity analysis, but may include the following:

Communications and preparedness

  1. including emergency warnings specifically targeting women, using community languages, women’s networks, and innovative communication (e.g. printed shopping bags, school publications)

  2. communicating through women’s organizations to reach non-majority language speakers, isolated women, low-income women

  3. expanding outreach to relevant women’s groups, agencies, and coalitions

  4. adding crisis line numbers and women’s services contact information to relief referrals

  5. consulting with women community leaders on language or cultural needs, life cycle issues, service or information gaps

Emergency relief

  1. eliminating mandatory evacuation based only on gender

  2. identifying alternate evacuation space for women at risk or needing privacy

  3. supporting women in caregiving roles in relief centres

  4. providing on-site, culturally-appropriate, and gender-sensitive crisis counselling

  5. offering on-site respite care for dependent caregivers

  6. providing on-site child care at relief distribution points

  7. administering benefits appropriate to multiple family forms

  8. including trained women and men in disaster outreach

Emergency shelter and temporary housing

  1. identifying alternative safe space for abused women

  2. identifying and eliminating risks to women’s security, e.g. poor lighting

  3. providing gender-sensitive mental, physical, and reproductive health services

  4. providing on-site support for caregivers, e.g. community centre, child care centre

  5. arranging public transportation (bus, jitney) to job sites, child care, relief agencies

  6. providing on-site access to needed employment, legal, and social services

  7. identifying women and children at risk of violence in temporary housing

Long-term recovery

  1. representing women on community decision-making bodies, e.g. home-based businesswomen on business recovery task force, low-income women on housing committee

  2. recognizing gender-specific social impacts and recovery need , e.g. of family day care providers, abused women, home-based businesses, home health caregivers

  3. providing gender-sensitive mental health services

  4. ensuring access to women disaster counselors and female outreach workers

  5. recognizing caregivers to evacuated families as disaster-impacted

  6. prioritizing recovery assistance to highly vulnerable women, e.g. widows, single mothers, isolated women

Community-based mitigation

  1. identifying local women’s groups, organizations, and agencies as community partners in disaster readiness

  2. recruiting and retaining women to professional and technical positions in emergency management agencies

  3. expanding recruitment of emergency volunteers from under-represented household types, age groups, social classes, and ethnic groups

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