• Maria Fustic

Gender Mainstreaming Humanitarian Responses to Natural Disasters


“Both women and men are part of the same society, which, as we know, does not mean we have the same rights, education and options to manage, neither in ‘normal’ times, nor when a disaster strikes.”

— Women, Disaster Reduction and Sustainable Development, UNISDR Secretariat, April 2003.

Especially now, at a time when our world is constantly flooded with news of natural disasters—whether it be Hurricane Maria, Irma, or Harvey, the earthquake in Mexico, or the fear of volcanic eruption in Bali—we all know that there is a need for quick disaster relief. However, what is often ignored by the population at large, the media, and even in humanitarian response by governments and NGO’s, is the gendered dimension of natural disasters.

Socially constructed roles and responsibilities of women and men create an unequal power dynamic that shapes their daily interactions, and even the ways in which they experience and recover from natural disasters.[1] Shocking data shows that disasters lower women’s life expectancies more than they lower men’s, that women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die during a natural disaster, and that in the aftermaths of disaster it is more likely that women will be victims of domestic and sexual violence.[2] The reasons behind these datas are vast. For instance, one reason that sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) increases in the aftermath of a natural disaster is that that they can cause men to no longer be able to solely economically provide for their families, and thus, women have to take on non-traditional roles outside of the household in order to fill in the gap; this transformation of gender relations can be perceived as a threat to the husband’s masculinity, to which he reacts with violence in order to prove his continued control and power over his wife.[3] To respond to these issues, gender must be mainstreamed into humanitarian work, meaning that it is not just an added element of consideration, but a constant consideration.[4] Gender mainstreaming in natural disaster humanitarian response allows program implementers to recognize that gendered vulnerability reflects historically and culturally specific patterns of relations that intersect with racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, and other inequalities.[5] This approach is already widely used in development work, at least in theory if not in practice, but is just beginning to be discussed in the context of humanitarian aid, where the need for quick response in emergencies to alleviate human suffering is often used as the justification for failing to consider gender.[6]

When gender isn’t mainstreamed in disaster relief, as is most often the case, there is a danger of reinforcing harmful gender norms, increasing gender inequality, and hampering the effectiveness of the relief programme. For example, people displaced from their homes by natural disasters often live in makeshift temporary camps, facilitated by humanitarian actors; seemingly simple-to-fix issues such as insufficient lighting, a lack of locks on bathroom doors, an absence of the distribution of feminine hygiene products and easy disposal of them, long distances from the sleeping area to other facilities, a dearth of safe spaces for women and children, and so on, are a norm in these camps, that unfortun

ately continuously cultivate environments susceptible to SGBV.[7] Moreover, a gender bias exists in the access to services; to illustrate, in a situation where most outreach workers are men, female survivors may feel uncomfortable discussing their needs.[8] This is especially true in societies where gender norms enforce that women should not speak alone with men who are not their husbands or family.[9] Humanitarian work not only runs the risk of unintentionally reinforcing harmful gender norms but even more reprehensible, humanitarian workers have in too many cases intentionally abused their position of power by giving out aid in exchange for sexual favours.[10]

Gender mainstreaming can help overcome these issues. Humanitarian actors should proactively conduct gender analyses in areas that are particularly prone to natural disasters before it hits. This would encompass learning about local gender norms and collecting gender disaggregated data on local demographic trends, power structures, poverty and unemployment, migrant workers, single parents, persons with disabilities, and so on, which can inform later emergency responses.[11] For example, knowing that when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004 many more women than men died because women were never taught how to swim while men were, has prompted NGO’s to provide swimming lessons for girls, challenging this harmful gender norm and teaching them a life-saving skill.[12] Even if data or past experience is not available to inform a response, gender can still be mainstreamed, especially by collaborating with local women’s groups and grassroots organisations, who understand local contexts.[13] In fact, such collaboration should be conducted in all cases, but again, the excuse of needing to respond quickly is always used as a justification for not doing so.

It is true that humanitarian responses to natural disasters must be quick, and this issue is enforced by donors with strict time limits on funding.[14] However, the affected people are not passive victims desperately waiting for financial help. Their own identity, and the way that identity is perceived and acted upon by the people around them, shape how natural disasters impact their life. Humanitarian organizations are beginning to grasp this concept, but they are not where they need to be yet, and at a time when disasters and inefficient responses to them are all too common, the excuse of gender considerations being sacrificed for the sake of quick response is not all too convincing. Gender mainstreaming must be implemented in our response to natural disasters, and this transformation in approach must happen as quickly as the responses themselves.

[1] Hilde van Dijkhorst and Suzette Vonhof, “Gender and Humanitarian Aid: A Literature Review of Policy and Practice,” Wageningen University Disaster Studies (2005): 5

[2] “Gender and Disasters”, UNDP bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (2010): 2

[3] Hilde van Dijkhorst and Suzette Vonhof, “Gender and Humanitarian Aid: A Literature Review of Policy and Practice,” Wageningen University Disaster Studies (2005): 13-15

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid.,17.

[7] Ibid., 14.

[8] Ibid., 20.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Adam Chandler, “A Humanitarian Mission becomes a Disaster,” The Atlantic, June 11 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/06/un-peacekeeping-transactional-sex-haiti/395654/

[11] Hilde van Dijkhorst and Suzette Vonhof, “Gender and Humanitarian Aid: A Literature Review of Policy and Practice,” Wageningen University Disaster Studies (2005): 19

[12] Christine Chung, “Why Teaching Women to Swim Helps Children, Too”, News Deeply, July 16 2016, https://www.newsdeeply.com/womenandgirls/articles/2016/07/12/why-teaching-women-to-swim-helps-children-too

[13] Hilde van Dijkhorst and Suzette Vonhof, “Gender and Humanitarian Aid: A Literature Review of Policy and Practice,” Wageningen University Disaster Studies (2005): 20

[14] Ibid., 17.

Chandler, Adam. “A Humanitarian Mission becomes a Disaster.” The Atlantic. June 11 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/06/un-peacekeeping-transactional-sex-haiti/395654/

Chung, Christine. “Why Teaching Women to Swim Helps Children, Too.” News Deeply, July 16 2016,https://www.newsdeeply.com/womenandgirls/articles/2016/07/12/why-teaching-women-to-swim-helps-children-too

Dijkhorst, Hilde; Vonhof, Suzette. “Gender and Humanitarian Aid: A Literature Review of Policy and Practice.” Wageningen University Disaster Studies (2005)

Gender and Disasters. UNDP bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (2010)


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