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Prioritizing Women's Human Rights in Times of Disaster: Problems & Solutions

Posted on: Friday, November 10, 2006

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Emergency Relief

When we examine "natural disasters" from the perspective of survivors, we see that disasters are ultimately not a force of nature, but a failure of government—a failure to ensure safe infrastructure, social services, and human rights for all. Indeed, the term "natural disaster" is misleading. While a hurricane or earthquake occurs in nature, a disaster's impact on people's lives depends enormously on their access to resources and their power to make decisions.

Gender refers to the different social roles assigned to women and men. These roles are usually unequal; men's qualities and contributions are more highly valued and women have less power and less access to resources. Women are therefore put at greater risk when disasters strike. Yet, because women play a primary role in sustaining families and communities, their leadership in times of disaster is critical.

MADRE's disaster relief and recovery programs identify the specific threats that women face and the unique contributions that women make in efforts to address the following problems associated with disasters.


The Problem: Urgent Need for Food, Water, and Basic Necessities


How are women affected?


  • People hardest-hit by disaster may lose all of their possessions and access to the resources that sustain life, including water, food, and fuel sources. Gender discrimination means that women's needs are the first to be sacrificed when resources are made scarce.
  • Moreover, because women are traditionally responsible for securing water, food, and fuel, they often must trek great distances after disaster to acquire these necessities, increasing their workload and making it more difficult to care for children and other dependents.

The Conventional Approach


Who Gets Aid?

  • Relief operations often assume that disasters are gender-neutral, which puts women at risk. When the distribution of emergency aid does not challenge gender discrimination, women are marginalized in their access to aid.
  • Too often, aid reaches those who yell the loudest or push their way to the front of the line. When aid is distributed through the "head of household" approach, women-headed families may not be recognized, and women within male-headed families may be marginalized because aid is controlled by male relatives.

Who Gives Aid?

  • The military is often given a major role in disaster relief. Military forces are not trained to distribute aid equitably and effectively. Military forces often violate the basic principles of humanitarian assistance: impartiality and neutrality. When disasters occur in a conflict zone, troops often leverage control over aid to harm certain communities or demand people's allegiance and cooperation. (See MADRE's 10 Reasons to Oppose US Militarization of Aid and Reconstruction in Iraq.)
  • Aid workers often lack gender training that alerts them to the specific needs and skills of women survivors. In some disasters, aid workers have sexually exploited women and girls, using aid as a way to coerce sex.
  • International aid agencies often marginalize, duplicate, or undermine the work of local organizations (See MADRE's From Disaster to Development: Community Women's Leadership in Times of Crisis.)

What is Given?

  • Women's basic needs for items such as sanitary napkins, contraception, and culturally appropriate clothing are commonly disregarded in the composition of aid packets.

MADRE works to:


  • conduct relief activities within a human rights framework, raising awareness among survivors and aid workers that access to relief is the human right of every survivor, not a form of charity;
  • distribute humanitarian assistance—including food, medicine, clothes, blankets, cooking utensils, soap, buckets, plastic sheeting, and mosquito netting—through local women's organizations. MADRE ensures that aid reaches those most in need and that local women's networks are strengthened in the process; and
  • consult women about what they need. Women often identify needs that are not considered by men, such as quick-cooking grains that do not waste scarce fuel and hand-held breast pumps to relieve mastitis (a physically and emotionally painful condition) for women whose babies have died.

The Problem: Destruction of Housing


How are Women Affected?


All people are threatened by the loss of shelter. But because women are responsible for meeting families' basic needs within the home, the loss of housing disrupts women's ability to fulfill a primary social role. Gender discrimination puts women who have been displaced from their homes at greater risk of poverty, violence, and disease.


The Conventional Approach


Temporary, emergency shelters are often constructed in ways that expose women to violence and exploitation. Women and girls in camps are often abused and sexually exploited by male survivors, aid workers, and security personnel. Often, latrines and bathing areas are in unsafe, poorly lit locations that compromise women's privacy, dignity, and safety.


MADRE works to:


  • provide emergency shelter that protects women's safety, personal dignity, and privacy (MADRE builds on the "Guidelines for Internally Displaced Persons" and "Guidelines for the Protection of Refugee Women" released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees);
  • ensure perimeter fencing, lighting, and secure, sex-segregated bathing places in temporary encampments;
  • help women provide services to displaced families, including women's centers and children's programs in temporary encampments; and
  • support women's efforts to activate and extend their social networks to meet immediate needs of their families and communities.

The Problem: Health Risks


How are Women Affected?


As those with the least access to healthcare and the greatest responsibility for caring for the sick, women face particular risks when a disaster disrupts health services or destroys water resources and sanitation systems.


The Conventional Approach


  • Relief operations often focus on injury and psychological trauma as primary health impacts of disasters, but fail to recognize the need for women's sexual and reproductive healthcare.
  • Medical relief operations often rely on women's unpaid, unrecognized work as the main caretakers of the sick and injured, further straining the health of women themselves.
  • A lack of female health workers obstructs women's access to medical attention in many disaster situations.

MADRE works to:


  • distribute emergency medicines and health and hygiene supplies through local women's organizations;
  • support women's initiatives to maximize their capacity as healthcare providers while attending to their own health needs;
  • provide reproductive and sexual health services to women in the wake of disasters; and
  • support community mental health initiatives that enable survivors to cope with trauma, loss, and grief, and enable women who are responding to disaster to better endure the exhaustion and psychological strain they face.

The Problem: Loss of Livelihoods and Increased Poverty


How are Women Affected?


Disasters require women to devote more time to unpaid domestic and community work, leaving them with less time for paid work. Moreover, resources (such as food gardens and wild plant species) on which many women's livelihoods depend are often destroyed by disaster. Women are generally poorer than men to begin with and have less access to training, education, credit, and other resources that can mitigate economic hardship after a disaster.


The Conventional Approach


While many rebuilding initiatives offer men jobs in construction, little attention is paid to women's needs to generate income and economic autonomy. Recovery efforts often prioritize rebuilding industry over rehabilitating small-scale farming and the informal sector of the economy, where women's jobs are concentrated.


MADRE works to:


  • develop emergency anti-poverty strategies for women, such as revolving loan funds, shared resource pools, short-term income-generating projects, and skills-training in the wake of disaster;
  • press for reconstruction strategies designed to combat poverty over the longterm and promote a rights-based approach to development; and
  • advocate for the full range of women's human rights, including, for example, economic rights to protect women in the informal sector, and women's property rights to ensure that those widowed in a disaster are able to inherit and own their property.

The Problem: Increased Violence


How Are Women Affected?


When men are not given the support they need in the wake of disaster, their stress and trauma may result in violence against women. Economic hardship, the loss of shelter and social networks, and the breakdown of social mores put women and girls at increased risk of sexual harassment, rape, forced prostitution, forced or early marriage, and trafficking in disaster situations.

The Conventional Approach

All too often, there is no approach to combating violence against women, which may not be recognized as a problem and may be perpetrated by relief workers themselves.

MADRE works to:

  • raise awareness within affected communities and among relief workers of the increased threat of violence in disaster situations;
  • provide healthcare, counseling, and physical safety to survivors (sometimes through simple means such as distributing whistles to women in displaced persons camps);
  • create programs that enhance women's economic autonomy; and
  • support women's demands for documentation, investigation, and prosecution of violence.

The Problem: Exploitative and Unsustainable Reconstruction Efforts

How Are Women Affected?

Relief and recovery operations invariably rely on women's labor, but rarely recognize or compensate women's contribution, or allow women a role in decision-making. Women's skills and knowledge are thereby both under-utilized and exploited and reconstruction initiatives are often unresponsive to women's needs.

The Conventional Approach

While women tend to be at the heart of community organizing efforts after disasters, they are usually excluded from leadership roles, particularly at the national and international levels. Most reconstruction efforts are conceived in isolation from overall economic development and sustainable development strategies.

MADRE works to:

  • provide women with the skills, information, and resources they need to become effective decision-makers in processes of reconstruction;
  • advocate for women's effective participation in the design and implementation of relief and reconstruction processes;
  • recognize and compensate the time, energy, and skills that women devote to relief and reconstruction efforts, and offer childcare, transportation, meals, and other forms of support to enable women to participate in MADRE programs and reduce their overall work burden; and
  • Stress that post-disaster reconstruction represents...

A Window of Opportunity

The aftermath of disaster is not only a crisis. It is also an opportunity for people to rebuild their lives and communities in ways that address the root causes of their vulnerability to disaster. To realize that opportunity, gender discrimination—in disasters and in everyday life—must be recognized and women's human rights must be made central to relief and reconstruction efforts.

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Kat Noel, Website & Media Coordinator
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