Bigger role for women in disaster preparedness

In a nation considered the most vulnerable to natural disasters in the world, women must be enabled to take on a bigger role in disaster preparedness and response, experts say.

“To be frank, it’s a constant challenge to achieve genuine female participation in the various activities... While I’ve observed a real commitment to ensuring female representation in disaster preparedness, planning and response, actual participation is something else,” Steven Goldfinch, programme specialist in disaster management for the UN Development Programme (UNDP), told IRIN in Dhaka.

Women's exclusion is not helped by a persistent myth that they are unable to manage in a disaster, added Puji Pujiono, the government’s project manager for the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP II).

“After a disaster, women undertake tasks directly related to survival. Once all family members are accounted for, women clean up the kitchen, and establish access to water, dry clothing and a place to sleep. Women will travel long distances and risk their own lives to get water for their families,” he said.

But reluctance at Bangladeshi women assuming a bigger role in this traditionally male-dominated country of 142 million has long been a problem.

According to a 2008 study by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, an international organization working for gender equality, women in Bangladesh were not consulted in any community-level decision-making.

This is despite the fact that government and NGOs began placing stronger emphasis on gender studies in relation to natural disasters following the 1991 cyclone, which resulted in widespread flooding and some 140,000 dead, said Khurshid Alam, a climate change and natural disaster expert and one of the study’s authors.

Research indicates that women are the most vulnerable section of the population in Bangladesh, where 171 disasters between 1971 and 2005 resulted in the loss of more than half a million lives.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Women line up for assistance following Cyclone Sidr

The UN Environment Programme reports that in 1991, among women aged 20-44, the death rate was 71 per 1,000 compared to 15 per thousand for men. It attributed the disparity to the social expectation that women wait for family members before escaping to a safer place.

Improvements have been made since then, but further change is necessary, Alam said.

“I do not believe the knowledge we have gained has been factored into disaster response adequately. There are good practices here and there, but it’s not mainstream. And as disaster response is still male-dominated, women are rarely mentioned in national documents,” he said.

One woman at a time

However, progress is being made.

As an urban community volunteer coordinator in Dhaka, Sultan Ara Begum, 44, has received training on collapsed structure search and rescue, fire-fighting and first aid from the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence Directorate. The volunteer scheme falls under CDMP- II, supported in part by UNDP Bangladesh.

Since January 2010, CDMP II has trained 5,466 urban volunteers, with a target of 62,000 by 2014. The goal is for 20 percent of the volunteers to be women. To date they are at 24 percent, Goldfinch said.

Begum said her family has reacted positively to her volunteer activities. “When I spent three days away from home for field training, my husband was supportive. He, along with my two daughters, sometimes attend training sessions with me," she said, explaining her motivation: “I will die, but my memory will remain, so I want society to remember me as someone who did something worthwhile.”