Women at risk during disasters due to poor understanding of gendered differences

Scorecard on Women and Policy provided by Debra Parkinson, Alyssa Duncan and Kiri Joyce, Gender and Disaster POD

Topic:  Federal gender equality policies

Sub-topic: Disaster preparedness and response; climate change policies

Today’s policy analysis examines how the government response to disasters puts women at greater risk due to a lack of gender analysis.  Stereotyped role assumptions underpin women’s increased vulnerability; they are more likely to experience violence and financial hardship immediately following a disaster, and are are less likely to have received disaster preparedness training. What is known about gendered differences to disasters needs to be incorporated into an effective strategy to keep women and children safer.

Gender analysis critical for effective disaster response

In a disaster event, considerations about gender are often sidelined as irrelevant or cursory to other “more urgent” issues. In reality, gender plays a significant role in the health, safety and wellbeing of people and communities affected by disaster. Traditional gender roles create the social pressures and expectations on men and women that are often exaggerated in an emergency. Men are expected to protect and provide, and women to nurture husbands and children first and foremost. Currently, gender is rarely considered in emergency management plans and policies, and where gender is mentioned, it is frequently tokenistic and insubstantial. The lack of gendered data is the most obvious indication of this, particularly regarding violence against women in disasters’ aftermath. Women and men experience disaster differently, and for women, the consequences of a gender-blind approach to emergency preparation and response can be particularly damaging.

The intersection of disasters and domestic violence

Women have a greater risk of experiencing domestic violence and financial hardship in the aftermath of disaster, and women are burdened with added responsibility for others, as women are overwhelmingly primary caregivers (see also here). Women who live with a violent partner before a disaster face additional barriers to disaster preparation and survival, such as social or geographic isolation, restricted access to transport or money, and inability to evacuate due to their partner’s reluctance or refusal. Relief centres and emergency shelters can place women with violent partners or ex-partners at risk of renewed violence, especially as legal protection orders are difficult to identify and enforce in these circumstances. Currently, domestic violence service information is rarely included in official recovery strategies, leaving women uninformed about the services available to them.

Inadequate disaster preparedness

Women are often inadequately trained for a disaster situation, as bushfire training is targeted primarily at men, and opportunities for women with children to attend are limited (see also DeLaine, et al., 2008). As a result, women frequently attempt to fight fires without training, and are largely reliant on men and their knowledge (Ibid.). Incorrect assessments of risk have left women to evacuate with dependent children in situations of high risk. The consequences of this are that the majority of female deaths in bushfire have been due to late evacuation

Gender mainstreaming putting women at risk

Incorporating gender into public policy can involve significant changes to existing policies, often with little on-the-ground effects if not accompanied by strategies for action. Research has shown that gender mainstreaming in Australia, for example, has been used by government departments to justify downsizing or defunding women’s policy units. The risk involved in gender mainstreaming is that it can become everyone’s responsibility with no one in charge of implementing and monitoring it, and that people without any formal gender expertise can misunderstand the structural nature of gender discrimination.

It is essential that gender be a key consideration at all levels of emergency policy and management to anticipate and respond effectively to disaster impacts on women and men. To this end, National Gender and Emergency Management Guidelines were collaboratively developed in 2016, and are available here. For more information on this topic, visit the Gender & Disaster Pod.

This analysis is a contribution to the Scorecard on Women and Policy project, initiated by the Women's Policy Action Tank.  We invite policy specialists in all areas to provide analysis of public policy using a gender lens:  womenspolicy@goodshep.org.au  Follow us on Twitter: @PolicyforWomen



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