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DISASTERS: Policies must consider needs of women

NAIROBI, 12 October 2012 (IRIN) - Better management of disaster risk requires paying more attention to those directly affected, especially women, according to experts.

“At the community level, we also need good practices, not policies... How do we enhance people-centred early warning systems? We also need the engagement of the local population,” said Pedro Basabe, the head of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) regional office for Africa. 

Basabe was speaking at a media event to mark International Disaster Risk Reduction Day; this year’s theme is "Women and Girls - the [in]Visible Force of Resilience".

While women contribute to making their communities more disaster-resilient through activities such as better land use and food storage, their efforts often go unrecognized because they are frequently excluded from planning processes.

“In order to enhance adaptability to environmental change and raise coping capacities in the event of a disaster, the people affected have to be comprehensively integrated into the political decision-making processes at community and national level[s], with equal participation of women being ensured. This also applies to the coordination and allocation of disaster relief,” states the 2012 World Risk Report.

Recognizing vulnerabilities

Women form one of the most vulnerable populations segments during disasters; recognizing their vulnerabilities and working to address them is key. In conflict situations, for example, women often bear the brunt of the violence.

“We realize that women have a big role in family and national affairs; they should take a lead role [in risk reduction] because when disasters strike they suffer the most,” said Lt Col (Rtd) Jeremiah Njagi, the deputy director of Kenya’s National Disaster Operations Centre (NDOC). 

“In Nairobi, when fires strike - mainly at night - the sufferers are mainly women and children, as the men are often out of the house. We need to teach them [women] the mitigation factors,” he said. “Wanjiru [a woman’s name], goes out, locks the children in the house, yet the stove is on and she does not inform the neighbours, then a fire breaks out.” 

Fires are common in Nairobi slum areas. These and other recurrent, often preventable, man-made disasters have been attributed to impunity for dangerous behaviours and late reaction to early warning messages. 

Common disasters in Kenya include droughts, floods, sporadic ethno-political violence and outbreaks of disease.

Policy needed

Political commitment, comprehensive disaster planning and coordination mechanisms are also important to reduce risk, according to UNISDR’s Basabe. 

Kenya has yet to finalize a disaster management policy – a framework that would help it set up a central body  to coordinate all institutions in activities of prevention and mitigation. “We are almost coming up with a disaster management policy… It is now between the cabinet and parliament,” said NDOC’s Njagi. 

NDOC was formed in 1998, after the 1997 El Niño rains, to monitor and coordinate the response to disasters nationally. Its operations have, however, been hampered by the absence of the policy.

At present, NDOC manages disasters under different laws, such as the Nairobi City Council’s bylaws, the Traffic Act and others, Njagi said. “The disaster management policy will be a common policy [document] to address all disasters to harmonize all these laws.”

The policy would also clearly spell out roles and enable better resource mobilization.

“When these disasters come right now, it is only the government and well-wishers who come to assist,” he said. “Disasters, when they strike, they leave you running to save lives, and they cost a lot of money.”

The reduction of disasters is both a moral imperative and an economic necessity, says the World Risk Report, noting that “not only do large-scale disasters cause immense human suffering, they also create massive costs for the economy. Within next to no time, they can wipe out years of progress in development.”

The provision of sufficient information is important for preventing and coping with disasters, adds the report. “For this reason, governments ought to systematically make risk assessments, establish threat potentials, compile contingency plans and calculate the costs of possible disasters ex ante… All this information ought to be provided to the public free of charge.”


Theme (s): Natural Disasters, Urban Risk,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


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