(En)Gender Inclusive Disaster Management
Women and Disasters in South Asia: Survival, Security and Development edited by Linda Racioppi and Swarna Rajagopalan, Routledge India, 2016; pp 318, ₹1,050.
The differential roles of women, men, girls and boys are powerful forces in every culture, especially in South Asia. These culturally constructed gender roles, and stereotypes about what men and women can and cannot do, or should and should not do can contribute to different types and levels of exposure and vulnerability to natural hazard impacts. In addition, disasters and the resulting post-disaster response can often launch communities into power dynamics and patterns of hierarchy that favour the decisions of men over women. Yet, the abilities and capacities of women and men to mitigate disasters consistently are one of the weakest areas of humanitarian responses that need to be explored and incorporated into disaster reduction policies and practices.
This weakness of not recognising gender differences is taken seriously by the anthology under review. It is a compilation of 13 articles covering an array of disasters in South Asia, over a seven-year span. The book is the product of collaboration between activists, field workers and academicians to highlight the fact—through the voices of South Asian women, sexual minorities and others—that recovery and development are gendered. It thereby attempts to formulate better responses by adopting a gendered perspective. The book not only highlights lessons but also provides a few tried-and-tested solutions for achieving equal participation of women in decision-making and presents approaches for integrating a gender perspective into disaster risk reduction strategies. It reiterates the fact that unless relief workers and officials acknowledge women’s vulnerable status and plan relief efforts accordingly, women and other vulnerable groups will continue to be disproportionately affected by natural disasters.
The editors’ introduction and concluding chapters are concise and well- researched on the impact disasters have on people and the vulnerability of the region. The first eight chapters cover the impacts of many natural hazards across South Asia (three anthologies have been published earlier), all resonating missed opportunities of gender inclusion in disaster response, recovery and sustainable development. It seeks to answer questions on the extent and ways pre-disaster gender relations affect the course of post-disaster relief and reconstruction; the extent and ways gender relations might be altered by disaster and post-disaster reconstruction; and the ways by which women can take advantage of the post-crisis environment to press for a changed understanding of security, enhanced rights, public voice, political participation and inclusive development. Most importantly, the lessons drawn from the research findings and on-the-ground practice are guideposts for future responses.
These chapters highlight mixed results on how responses are framed as well as how certain communities (particularly economically weaker men and women, lower caste and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons) have been ignored altogether. Despite claims made by most institutions active in recovery after disasters and addressing the special needs of women, these chapters bring to light the field experiences and testimonials from women that highlight the gaps in the implementation of “best-practices” in the context of gender focused recovery and sustainable development. Very often the dynamic concept of “building back better” invariably returns communities back to the status quo where women have been experiencing insecurity.
The last four chapters focus on approaches for integrating gender perspectives into disaster risk reduction strategies by going beyond treating women as victims and empowering them through “South–South” partnership and “women-for-women” empowerment initiatives. These articles point out that mere inclusion of women without enhancement of capabilities serves little purpose in the metamorphosis from being marginalised groups to stakeholders in mainstream development.
The book offers engaging testimonies and accounts of exclusion of women and other groups for social scientists, researchers and practitioners of disaster recovery and development in South Asia.
However, it has its share of gaps that need to be filled. The anthology is restricted to pre-2010 disasters, about which much has already been written and analysed. First, the need now is to assess the extent South Asia has imbibed learnings from its past of missed opportunities and compare their responses to more recent disasters such as Cyclone Phailin in Odisha (2013), the Jhelum floods impacting Pakistan and India (2015), the Chennai floods, Tamil Nadu (2015), and the Nepal earthquake (2015). By not providing a comparative analysis of disasters in similar locations leaves the readers with the initial unanswered questions on approaches and how decisions are made during disaster recovery. The present collection of essays loses a lot of its potential due to the absence of a comparative historical perspective on gender inclusion in disaster recovery and mitigation over the years. Hence, there is no clear benchmark of where we are now, where do we want to be and what needs to be done in order to alter the post-disaster and development process so that it is more gender inclusive within each country and South Asia as a whole.
Second, the anthology does not provide a fair sense of how disaster response, recovery and reconstruction are a challenge for governance. In post-disaster scenarios, the governments are pressurised to respond quickly and effectively, and hence massive development and reconstruction needs are compressed in time and space. This also brings with it the challenges of coordination and better collaboration among various stakeholders, striking a balance between speed, quality, consultative process and quick decision-making in a compressed time frame (Olshansky 2012). In addition, there is also the challenge of mobilising and managing the flow of funds coupled with transparency and accountability. The articles shed no light on the institutional mechanisms to address disaster recovery and reconstruction/development. The utilisation of opportunities presented by a disaster greatly depends on a number of factors related to governance—such as quality of leadership, planning and organisation for reconstruction, dedicated institutions for disaster recovery and mitigation, and others. There are just two paragraphs at the conclusion of Chapter 5 on the success of Odisha’s response and recovery after Cyclone Phailin 2013. It warrants elaboration on what the state institution did differently since the 1999 super cyclone and about the nature of the gender-related issues that were not given attention.
Lastly and most importantly, the point is well described by Mihir Bhatt:
women have not only special vulnerabilities but also capabilities. Their capacity to work with local researchers, cooperation and their looking forward approach cannot be undervalued. (p 76)
Reducing disaster risk is not new to women. Women deal with disasters on a day-to-day basis; given a chance, they can take a lead; given resources and position, women can make disaster recovery and risk reduction an opportunity to galvanize the community. (p 76)
Similarly, Prema Gopalan rightly states that
policymakers and institutions are likely to pay a huge cost if they continue to treat women as victims. They would miss the opportunity to build local capacities and fail to create women leaders to ensure future development activities do not increase hazards. (p 208)
These are important and established arguments that have figured in a lot of literature on disasters and women. We need to go beyond the usual repetition of gender differences and/or women exclusion to focus more on gender capabilities and the ways by which women have altered post-disaster reconstruction to change mindsets and stereotypes. This will not only convince policymakers and officials alike but would also inspire women by convincing them of their inherent capabilities.
The book brings together interdisciplinary perspectives in gender studies. It provides a good collection of references for students and researchers to build upon. However, in the absence of any discussion on comparative works on disasters at specific locations, analysis of institutional mechanisms, and a focus on gender capabilities rather than gender differences within debates on gender inclusion for recovery and development, the present anthology falls short of answering some of the important questions it raises initially in the book.
Gangwar, Sneh (2013): “Integrating Gender Issues in Mitigation and Management of Disaster in India,” International Journal of Environmental Engineering and Management, Vol 4, No 6, pp 613–20.
Olshansky, R, L Hopkins and L Johnson (2012): “Disaster and Recovery: Processes Compressed in Time,” Natural Hazards Review, Vol 13, Issue 3, August.
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