Special Issue on Women and Disasters

Table of Contents

Gender and Disasters: A Second Look--an invited comment

On The Line

International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction

Letter to the Editor

The RADIUS Project

EERI Seeks Graduate Fellow and Establishes Mini-Internship Program

EMA Seeks Reviewers for Risk Management/Emergency Management Guidelines

The Internet Page(s)

Hazards Center Seeks Tolstoy

Dispensing Disaster Knowledge in Delaware

Higher Learning and Disasters: Announcing the FEMA Education Project

EMI Courses Now Available

Washington Update

NEMA and IIPLR Join Forces

Contracts and Grants

Research Opportunities

Conferences and Training

A New Series from EENET

EMI Offers School Disaster Training Courses

Recent Publications

Who We Are

Gender and Disasters: A Second Look

--an invited comment

In a recent article in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management, I suggested we should re-examine existing disaster research using a gender viewpoint. Drawing on an excellent paper by Joyce McCarl Neilsen, a sociologist at the University of Colorado­Boulder, I asked if there is a gender bias in the research done to date, then asked if past findings, even if they do not have a gender bias, are applicable to a changing world.

Some welcomed my piece, calling it an intriguing look at an unmined area. Others pointed out the many references to gender in the literature. They suggested newcomers to this topic tend to present their work as original rather than as an addition to a growing body of knowledge. My piece did miss things, but it raised issues that have often been ignored, because, while there is evidence gender is a factor in disasters, the findings have not been pulled together.

For years, those studying various types of emergencies have noted differences between male and female behavior. Fire researchers reported that if men and women are together when there is a threat, a man will check out the threat and a women will wait. The early National Opinion Research Center studies found that if men and women are together with children in the wake of a disaster, men will leave to help others, women will stay and look after the children. Canadian research on evacuations found that emergency personnel will pressure women and children to leave, but allow men to go and return or to stay behind. Phillips and Neal found domestic violence may increase in the wake of disaster, and Nigg and Tierney report that women may be left out when loans are being given to assist small businesses with recovery. An additional problem is the absence of women from emergency organizations, or, as Wraith found in Australia, the fact that women are a small minority of those trained in emergency colleges.

As Phillips and Neal point out, some studies have identified the broader effects of gender. Beinin showed that women and children were more likely than men to die in earthquakes in the Soviet Union. Schroeder showed that Hausa women in Africa were more likely to become victims of drought. Dufka found minority women ran into special problems after the Mexico City earthquake. Morrow and Enarson found similar problems after Hurricane Andrew. Both studies fit with earlier work by Neal and Phillips showing women have difficulty making their voices heard even if they organize. More recently, Fordham and Ketteridge reported that women often provide food and clothing to disaster victims, but men "take over the management of the provision of these basic necessities." Clearly, the way women are treated in society affects what happens to them in disaster.

At the same time, the disappearance of the extended family and the growing number of single parents in western society raises new issues, especially for emergency agencies. It is increasingly common for both spouses to work and no longer unusual for both to have emergency responsibilities. What happens to children when a single parent is needed for an emergency? What happens to children when both parents have emergency responsibilities? Such parents may have standing arrangements for child care that work in normal emergencies, but that does not mean they will work during disasters. Dobson reports that in Australia, when both spouses had emergency responsibilities, the men left the women to care for the children. Given what we know--that the bulk of initial search and rescue and transport to hospital is done by survivors, not emergency agencies--the departure of men may hinder the initial response. The men may leave where they are needed to go where their services may be less useful. That perspective forces a new look at role abandonment: perhaps the fact that persons stay on the job even when their families are in distress has a negative impact on overall response.

If women are going to play a different role in the response to disaster, it seems clear that a number of approaches are needed. As Noel points out, they need non-traditional skills. They must also overcome prejudice even when they have those skills. In addition, ways must be found to free women from other responsibilities. Honeycombe suggests they may need access to emergency child care. Finally, as Phillips suggests, they may have to adjust their management style--the seemingly softer female approach to giving orders may be misunderstood by men.

When a munitions ship exploded in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, with one-seventh the power of the first atomic bomb, it left 1,963 dead and 9,000 injured. The largest single group of dead were Roman Catholics, and their most common occupation was housewife. The explosion also took the lives of 366 children, 204 of them pre-school age. Those statistics are easy to explain. The explosion took place in the city's north end, where the poor lived, and most were Roman Catholic. It also took place on a weekday morning in wartime, when the older children were at school, the men were at work or at war, and the women were at home with the preschool children. As so many others have shown since then, disasters do not affect everyone equally: what you are and what you do determines your fate.

In short, the problem has been around for a long time. Let's stop asking if gender makes a difference and start asking precisely why that difference occurs, what its affects are, whether it is appropriate, and if not, what can be done about it. Let's also review existing research to see whether there is a gender bias.

Joseph Scanlon, Director, Emergency Communications Research Unit, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, and President, Research Committee on Disasters, International Sociological Association


Beinin, L. 1981. An Examination of Health Data Following Two Earthquakes in Russia. Disasters 5 (2): 142-146.

Dobson, Narelle. 1994. From Under the Mud-Pack: Women and the Charleville Floods. Macedon Digest 9 (2): 11-13.

Dufka, Corinne. 1988. The Mexico City Earthquake Disaster. Social Casework: The Journal of Contemporary Social Work 69 (March):162-170.

Fordham, Maureen and Anne-Michelle Ketteridge. 1996. Men Must Work and Women Must Weep: Examining Gender Stereotypes in Disaster. Paper presented at Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop, Denver, Colorado.

Honeycombe, Beth. 1994. Special Needs of Women in Emergency Situations. Macedon Digest 8 (4): 28-31.

--------1954. Human Reaction in Disaster Situations. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center. Volumes I, II, and III.

Morrow, Betty Hearn and Elaine Enarson. 1996. Hurricane Andrew Through Women's Eyes: Issues and Recommendations. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 14 (1): 5-22.

Neal, David M. and Brenda D. Phillips. 1990. Female-Dominated Local Social Movement Organizations in Disaster-Threat Situations. In Women's Social Protest, edited by Guida West and Lois Blumberg. pp. 243-255. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nielsen, Joyce McCarl. 1984. Sex and Gender in Disaster Research. Boulder, Colorado: Department of Sociology, University of Colorado. Unpublished.

Nigg, Joanne and Kathleen J. Tierney. 1990. Explaining Differential Outcomes in the Small Business Disaster Loan Process. Preliminary Paper No. 156. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware, Disaster Research Center.

Noel, Gloria. 1990. The Role of Women in Disaster Management. Paper presented at the 17th Biennial Conference of the Caribbean Nurses Association, St. Lucia.

Phillips, Brenda. 1990. Gender as a Variable in Emergency Response. In The Loma Prieta Earthquake: Studies of Short-Term Impacts, edited by Robert Bolin. Environment and Behavior Monograph No. 50. pp. 84-90. Boulder, Colorado: Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, University of Colorado.

Phillips, Brenda D. and David Neal. n.d. Gender and Disasters: Enabling and Empowering Women for a Sustainable Future. Unpublished.

Schroeder, Richard A. 1987 Gender Vulnerability to Drought: A Case Study of the Hausa Social Environment. Working Paper No. 58. Boulder, Colorado: Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, University of Colorado.

Wilson, Jennifer, Brenda D. Phillips, and David M. Neal. 1982. Women's Vulnerability to Domestic Violence: Organizational Behavior After Disaster. Unpublished.

Wraith, Ruth. 1995. Women in Emergency Management: Where are They? Hobart, Australia. Paper presented at the National Conference on Stress and Trauma.

On the Line

From the Field: Gender Issues in Disaster Response and Recovery

The role of women in the U.S. is expanding and changing, but the role of women in disaster preparedness and recovery is still overlooked by most researchers and practitioners. Notable research on women and disasters has been done by Betty Morrow, Elaine Enarson, and Brenda Phillips, while notable recovery work has been done by countless women who are known only to those whom they have helped. My personal and professional experience as a disaster specialist with Church World Service1 parallels the findings of those who are researching and writing about gender differences in disaster.

Worldwide, women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men. And, even in the U.S., they are exposed to a higher level of poverty and live in substandard conditions more often than men, leaving them much more vulnerable to a disaster.

Compounding this problem, women are more likely to find themselves solely responsible for their family after a disaster. Often, their husband or partner "takes the money and runs." And, as more federal and state social programs are cut, the struggle of women to recover will become even more difficult.

Women, Disasters, and Poverty

Women are traditionally the caregivers for children, parents, extended family, and neighbors--limiting their options for earning income and gaining mobility. In daily life, poor women depend on either public transportation or inadequate personal transportation. A 10-minute trip for most of us may literally take most of the day for those in poverty. Following a disaster, transportation becomes even more difficult. Compounding these difficulties, women work more hours for less pay than men, thus limiting their time with family even more. The current era has been called the Information Age, but women in poverty are not participants. Information from normal channels does not always get to them due to language barriers and a lack of telephones, televisions, and newspapers. Often, warning systems are ineffective in low-income areas, particularly because warnings and other disaster information are better received by male members of the community and missed by women.

To compound these difficulties, impoverished women and children have increased health problems, primarily due to malnutrition and its impacts on both mental and physical health. These difficulties are magnified during a long disaster recovery process.

I have also found that many poor communities have a defeatist or fatalist attitude, a sort of "psychic numbing" (a term coined by Robert Lifton in his book, Death and Life). And, as with drought, poverty works its damage gradually and almost invisibly.

Women have a sense of guilt that men seem to lack, believing that they are responsible for their plight. Often, this guilt springs from an "if only" mind set. "If only I had been better to my husband, he wouldn't have beaten me." "If only I had been a better person, God would not have punished me." This ethic of responsibility, when combined with fatalism, creates a kind of helplessness and hopelessness that prevents preparation for disaster. For poor women and children, life itself is an unending series of misfortunes, thus, preparing for a disaster is pushed aside by daily emergencies. It is tough to save three day's supply of food in an emergency kit when you do not know where your next meal will come from.

The Organizing Skills of Women

All the aforementioned barriers notwithstanding, women in poverty have the courage and creativity to gather together to respond to the needs of the hour. Often, younger women look up to a "sage," an older woman in the community. I saw this in the Caribbean after Hurricane Marilyn, in Cape Mendocino after the earthquake, and in Los Angeles after the civil disturbances.

The Leadership Skills of Women

Flexibility and creativity are key to successful disaster recovery. Women in poverty live and survive in what for many of us would be overwhelming chaos. I have often seen them rely on the "coupon method" of survival. Drawing on their everyday survival skills, these women will take the little money they find, put it with the last food stamp voucher, clip coupons, and watch for a sale to get what is needed. When a disaster strikes, they use these skills to adapt and survive.

In most of the disaster recovery efforts in which I have been involved, other members of the stricken community readily respond to a female member who takes a leadership role. This seems to be the rule and not the exception. In fact, I worked with a woman who was the mother of 10 children and had no professional work experience; she is now a nationally respected response consultant. Another woman, who also had no formal training and a limited education, won a $1 million grant for her state. These two cases show that when poor women are given technical support and encouragement, they function at high levels and continue to lead their communities.

The Informal Network of Women

Women in poverty do not have access to formal organizations or officials unless it is through the welfare or court systems. These women network with others at places like the laundromat, welfare offices, senior centers, or the bus stop. Many of our disaster response organizations and agencies are more successful when they meet these women in their own environment, convince them that they have the skills and abilities to deal with recovery, and give them the tools to succeed. Similarly, working on disaster recovery gives some women the opening for the first time to work with unfamiliar business and government structures.

Many times, when I have met with low-income women after a disaster, I have asked them what they need, expecting them to request food, water, or shelter. However, the response I get most often is for a safe place for their children to play. In one community, the women saw the disaster as an opportunity to repair broken sewer lines and clean up garbage that was never collected and resulted in a large rat population. They soon learned that the disaster was a way of clearing away the bad and building something new. When such women have access to the tools of change, those tools will not be put down until the job is done.

Reverend Kristina Peterson, Disaster Recovery Specialist, Church World Service

1. Church World Service (CWS) was formed after World War II on behalf of 51 religious bodies and organizations in the U.S. to assist in restoring and rebuilding Europe. Currently, CWS has both national and international programs that provide help to refugees, food and development aid, and disaster assistance. For further information, contact the Church World Service Emergency Response Program, 475 Riverside Drive #606, New York, NY 10115; (212) 870-3151; fax: (212) 870-2236; WWW: http://www.ncccusa.org/CWS/emre.

The International Decade for Natural Disaster Reducation (IDNDR)

The Role of Women in Protecting Communities from Disasters

This article is adapted from a speech given by the author as a member of a United Nations panel for International Women's Day, March 7, 1997.

Most of us are familiar with the media images of mothers with their children, standing amidst the wreckage of floods, cyclones, earthquakes, and other major disasters. These pictures reinforce a common stereotype about women and disasters: that women are, first and foremost, victims. They are vulnerable. They are poor, marginalized, or lack political influence.

But this is only half the picture. Women have an important and positive role in communities. They are the most likely to be the ones to feed and care for family and community members. They contribute financially (whether through formal or informal sectors), and they are an important force in community voluntary groups.

Given their central position in both preparing for and responding to disasters, how can women in communities around the world be empowered to best perform this role?

The Ambiguous Role of Women in Disasters

Disasters work like a magnifying glass, showing what is good and what needs work in society. The problems before a disaster are the problems after a disaster, only worse, and this is as true of gender issues as any other issues.

As part of our decade-long program, in 1995 the United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) Secretariat chose, as its annual theme, empowering both women and children to take a stronger role in protecting their communities from disasters. As part of the process, we encouraged countries to organize national roundtables to explore the issue and make concrete recommendations. We also reviewed the literature on women and disasters, concentrating on mitigation, preparedness, and reconstruction, rather than on relief.

In a word, we found that the role of women in protecting communities from disasters is ambiguous--because the position of women in society is ambiguous, both within and across cultures. For example, at one major conference I attended, the head of the national office for earthquake protection, a male, suggested to some very influential women from leading families--women who were lawyers, government ministers, university professors, and so forth--that the best thing women could do, since they run households, is to make sure the draperies are properly fastened so that they do not fall and injure someone if the earth starts shaking. At the same time, the rapporteur at this conference, a woman, represented the other end of the spectrum regarding women's issues; she used every opportunity to insist on the empowerment of women, without dealing with any issues specific to disasters.

Beyond Ambiguity

Before looking at solutions, we have to accept that discussions about the role of women in disaster management can be polarized and exclusionary--just like discussions about the role of women in other aspects of life. Some believe that women have no special needs in disasters, while others use the issue to champion the empowerment of women generally. What we need are fact-based decisions about how to integrate women into a process that protects communities from disasters.


I see three issues that must be addressed in this process:

1) Many of the official channels related to disaster management are male-dominated. Following floods in Australia in 1992, a female relief worker said, "The most public aspects of the cleanup were a male affair. The state emergency service, police, fire brigade, and salvation and military armies were constituted almost entirely of men, and the work they did was very public and recognized as such. On the other hand, women . . . predominantly worked in the privacy of their homes and their role in the cleanup was less visible."

Moreover, there are simply not enough women involved in official community development work that reduces disaster risks. The IDNDR regional officer in Latin America reports that women there do not participate enough in official preparedness and mitigation work. Who decides where wells will be dug or dams will be built? Will communities protect things that are obvious to mothers, like a bridge that always floods on a route that children take home from school? Again (it cannot be overstated), to truly address hazards, we must give women a real say in community organization and development, before disasters strike.

2) As so often happens in everyday life, women stay behind the scenes during disasters, making it difficult to acknowledge either their concerns or their contributions. Obviously, this is, in part, the flip side of the first issue. When taken to an extreme, this tradition can put women at increased danger. One woman from a development nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Bangladesh noted that "a woman is under great pressure because of the practice of purdah, a traditional custom not to leave the house when the husband is away. Without her husband to escort her, she cannot go alone to the cyclone shelter . . . And many husbands work away from home . . . After a cyclone, women have often been left alone in their damaged homes, unreached by aid workers, unable to contribute to community rehabilitation decisions."

3) Women do have specific issues that make them more vulnerable, and this fact is not clearly understood or accepted. Until recently, researchers felt that natural disasters did not discriminate among their victims, but new research shows that at least for famines and earthquakes, there is a convincing case that mortality rates are higher for women than for men.

Similarly, a study of postdisaster stress shows that women and children are the first to be marginalized or abused. Stressful situations are harder for women because women lack control over the resources they need to cope with those situations, while they also have more family responsibilities.


What can one do to empower women to better protect their communities?

1) Build on womens' strengths in communities, channels related to primary health care, and community literacy programs. In the Caribbean, literacy programs for women have been used as a means for conveying disaster prevention messages. In Bangladesh, one agency taught village women simple ways to protect children from disease after disasters. These women went door-to-door with their message to thousands of households.

2) Conduct more research. Gender research on disaster issues is scarce, but good research can point the way to practical solutions. For example, after a 1992 earthquake in Turkey, a researcher from a local university assembled a predominantly female research team to survey psychosocial attitudes after the disaster. The teams surveyed women at home and found that they were eager to discuss their experiences, but had not done so previously because other research teams were mostly male, and the women could not invite the strange men into their home. The female researchers were welcomed, and they learned that women find it difficult to participate in local preparedness committees, because the meetings are scheduled in ways that do not take into account domestic responsibilities, and no child care arrangements are available.

3) Make it official. In the roundtable discussions held for World Disaster Reduction Day in 1995, across all locations, one common recommendation was to improve links between community NGOs and government officials responsible for disaster-related issues. Officially designating women's groups as focal points with local or national authorities is one way to increase their viability. It is easier to systematically receive information and be invited to participate in decision-making processes if you are previously recognized as an important participant. Indeed, this process was initiated in several countries as a result of the roundtables.

4) Work together. For example, specifically pursue gender balance in neighborhood committees that deal with "emergency and development" issues. In Chosica, Peru, after experiencing many landslides, this is precisely what occurred. Men and women worked together to produce risk maps, build retaining walls, and design water systems for tree plantations that would reduce the impact of landslides.

5) Recognize the reality. Addressing the specific needs and special contributions women can make is a process that will take time. Progress in this area will move as quickly, or as slowly, as progress regarding other gender-related issues facing our society.

Natalie Domeisen, Promotion Officer, IDNDR Secretariat, United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs, Geneva, Switzerland

The author invites interested persons to contact her for additional information regarding individuals or institutions studying or dealing with gender issues in disaster management. She can be contacted at the IDNDR Secretariat, United Nations, Palais des Nations, CH-1211, Geneva 10, Switzerland; tel: (41-22) 798 68 94; fax: (41-22) 733 86 95; e-mail: natalie.domeisen@dha.unicc.org.

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