Why mobilizing women’s leadership is critical to disaster risk reduction

by Shafqat Munir | March 16, 2015
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“No matter how much the ground shakes, we will remain calm in our hearts.”
Quote from a group of women from Iwakiri district of Sendai, Japan

Women’s leadership is critical in efforts to address the mounting challenge of rising disasters around the world.

Women are often disproportionately affected by disasters, due to gender inequality and discrimination, including a lack of equal access to adequate information, economic opportunities and social exclusion.  Frequently, they suffer a double trauma – both through the hazard event itself and then, due to increased vulnerability post-disaster – including higher vulnerability to violence of various kinds, loss of livelihoods and increased economic insecurity.

However, it’s also restrictive to view women as merely vulnerable beneficiaries of outside assistance in disaster situations. Rather, women can also play a critical leadership role in disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Oxfam has long advocated for women’s leadership in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Disaster Risk Management (DRM) and has provided evidence from our programs around the world on women’s significant role as change makers and leaders.

It’s timely then that this week’s World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan is running in parallel to the 59th session of the Commission on Status of Women (CSW) at the UN Headquarters in New York – one of the world’s leading forums dedicated to the issues of women’s leadership, gender equality and protection of women in difficult circumstances, including disasters and conflicts.

This year’s CSW marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration, a resolution outlining a comprehensive set of principles and commitments to achieve women’s empowerment and gender equality into the 21st century.

At the opening of this year’s CSW, Patricia Licuanan, Chair of the Commission on Higher Education of the Philippines noted that the links between gender and environment, climate change and disasters are much more accepted now than they were at the time of the Declaration’s adoption in 1995.

Yet while these recognition of those links are much stronger in principle, it’s equally true that that the gap between ambition and reality in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment remains huge. Significantly increased investment is therefore needed to bridge persistent wide shortfalls, at all levels and through all aspects of sustainable development – including DRR.

That’s why it’s so critical that the post-2015 agreement on DRR achieves bold commitments to address the enormous impacts of disasters on women, and includes measures to actively promote women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction, planning and preparedness. Perhaps realizing the gravity of the situation, explicit commitments have begun to come from world leaders here in Sendai.

For Oxfam and other agencies working to reduce disaster risk, our task and challenge after this conference will be help ensure the commitments to women’s leadership in DRR expressed here in Sendai can be translated into long-term support and attitudinal change among communities and local authorities who are at the frontline of disaster risk around the world.

Shafqat Munir is Oxfam's Asia Rights in Crisis Coordinator

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