Gender approach in the face of disasters: an opportunity to change power relations

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Verónica Yuretic, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Gender Consultant

Translated by Natalia Tranchino

It is obvious to say that when socioenvironmental disasters take place – whether they are caused by man or by nature – there are people who suffer the consequences of such disasters; which, in most cases, means a change in their lives. However, the effects of disasters on men and women show differences which need considering at the time of decision-making in the course of the stages of recovery from these events. This should be the case so that they can become an opportunity in order to learn from what has happened and in order to improve what was previously done in relation to cultural, social, and political matters.

Gender literature has made fundamental contributions to understand to what extent women, as compared to men, can undergo more serious damage and negative effects in their lives. This is so on the understanding  that there exist different ‘gender interests’ (priority concerns that women – or men – can develop by  virtue of  the social position that they adopt in accordance with their gender attributes), and that these derive from power relationships occurring inside patriarchally organized on the basis of work distribution. That is to say, interests that vary depending on dominant stereotypes as crystallizations of culture: men in their role as suppliers and women in charge of the house, childcare and child raising. Feminist analysts delve deep into these themes, identifying strategic and practical gender interests or practical gender needs.

When analyzing the strategic interests from a disaster risk reduction approach (RRA), it would be sensible to ask ourselves which was the woman -or women’s- condition prior to the disruptive event. That is, her economic autonomy, her education and development, and her role of caretaker; whether she had male and female friends, if she liked her work, if she had a good job, if she had enough time to rest and not to feel overwhelmed, or if she was happy or not in this social setting the culture had formerly placed her in a naturalized fashion. Indeed, the previous inquiring becomes crucial since the strategic interests respond to the subjective life experiences as both men and women. Although these dimensions turn out complex to measure and to quantify, by all means they must be considered by those who make decisions in RRA matters. Undoubtedly, the challenge lies in generating a previous and subsequent evaluation of the disaster which allows thinking about opportunities to produce sustainable social development. The reason is simple: after the loss there is no choice left but to reconstruct themselves and their surroundings.

The Early Recovery Theory is defined as the multidimensional process which, guided by developmental principles, has its onset in a humanitarian context by responding to basic needs (shelter, food and care), but also initiating the linkage between this process and the following one, which should be a facilitator of both resources and opportunities not only during the crisis but in the long term. It is here where the opportunity of including an in-depth look at the interests of both men and women emerges; a look to those interests closely connected with the most strategic aspects of their lives. In fact, such interests should emerge from within each individual autonomously, and each individual should later have the opportunity to pursue those interests in each and every one of their contexts.

On the other hand, practical gender necessities are the concrete material conditions in which women live as a result of their position within the division of labor and, unlike strategic interests, these needs are directly formulated by very women living a certain situation, thus requiring no external intervention to further define them. Thus, they refer mainly to the basic needs the family has.

Through this analysis it is possible to identify that given the impacts of a disaster, women’s daily life is affected due to the damage that undergo both their housing and environmental contexts. For example, in the Atacama flood of 2015, the consequences of the mine tailing landslides which significantly increased the levels of air, water and ground pollution forced women and their children to move to other regions temporarily or permanently in order to protect their families’ health. This brought about a series of consequences for the displaced women, like the loss of their jobs, stress, uncertainty of all kinds and, therefore, greater levels of vulnerability. It is worth mentioning that this decision came from the residents’ common sense, as the government neither regarded nor declared the contamination levels as dangerous for the population.

Several disasters have occurred in the country and they been perceived by the society as a whole, but especially by women from rural-urban zones.  The role of these women, from a reproductive/ productive labor perspective, is to carry out daily tasks such as taking care of the family (cleanliness, hygiene, feeding) and strengthening the family’s economy through animal breeding together with sowing and cropping for domestic consumption. In many communities, the previous tasks have been heavily by the consequences of the drought which has left them without water, the essential element for developing their lives.

It is not very difficult to conclude then that the impact is different depending on gender roles; however, this also offers an opportunity to address these issues from a gender approach. Accordingly, it would be reasonable to think, for example, on what innovating projects aimed at water collection and storage should be discussed together with women, thus looking for mechanisms that foster their capacities and those of the territory, since it is women who mostly inhabit the countryside.

For instance, in Colombia the “slope guardians” from the city of Manizales confirm that it is possible to take advantage of a crisis to boost not only the economic, but also the social development of those who have suffered. Such is the case of these women who, being heads of household, are trained in the handling of machinery and slope maintenance. Thus, they are responsible for keeping these lands free from weeds and sweepings, besides cleaning the channels to prevent overflowing due to rubbish accumulation. The previous takes place in the context where they live with their families, thus preventing fires and landslides.

Ultimately, incorporating the strategic interests and the practical gender needs to the recovery processes in RRA implies to modify power relations in the territories, which should certainly have an impact on the extractive and predation model controlling this country’s economy.

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