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Women in Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation
Disaster is a social phenomenon (Quarantelli, 1992). It is an event of scientific and humanity interest it is also susceptible to explanation for the human mind to understand. A disaster is defined through a human lens relative to other events through social disruption, mortality rate, injuries, damages, and displacement of the population. Disasters can be either natural such as tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis or can be man-made such as oil spills, train accidents, wars, corruption, a fragile democracy, and terrorist attacks. Social vulnerabilities lead women to have higher mortality rates than compared to men in disasters. We, as a society, need to learn to coexist with all disasters, to mitigate and plan for them, no matter to cause. We can see the solution before the problem if we have a diversified team of both men and women of different ages and backgrounds.
Disaster is a shared risk, but not an equal one. Disasters do not affect the population in the same way. There are social vulnerabilities that can discriminate along the same lines as a society can discriminate against each other. These discriminations are derived from race, class, gender, age differences, income level, and disabilities. Social vulnerability is a society’s exposure to hazard, mitigation efforts, and access to resources (Enarson, 2012). Social vulnerabilities can impact a society through life safety, incident stabilization, property protection, evacuation, financially, desertion, and their ability of the community recovery (Enarson, 2012).
There are three contributing factors that define the issue of gender imbalance in mortality rates, they are: social vulnerabilities including but not limited to race, class, gender, age differences, education, and income level, second is social and mass media, and third, cultural or society norms. First I’ll discuss media, then statistics in the literature from around the world, a rooted look into Hurricane Katrina, income levels, biological or physical difference between a man and a women, and roles of women. Then, I’ll move onto mitigation and preparedness accompanied by a disaster planning chart (Weist, Mocellin & Mofsisi, 1992, but resigned by Jeanette Burkhart, Appendix 5.1). Lastly, concluding remarks.
Disaster is a social formulation. Gender usually has not been a conscience criterion by communities, aid relief agencies, or governments. As I combed through the literature, women, men, and gender became the unknown. There have been decades of research but is there a cautious silence or perhaps a blindness about gender? Studies have found that women are faced with gender-based challenges as they evacuated, sought shelter, and rebuilt their lives after a disaster. There was an also elevated report of domestic violence that was directly related to and even avoids using shelters for fear of violence and sexual assault (Davis et al., 2005). In several of the case studies, in research and even in law and policy decisions were made without accounting for gender. This omittance is derived from generalizations about “human” behavior. Disaster management is the science of human behavior as we learned in class. It’s not logical to ask gender, class, race etc. when a disaster strikes, but should be accounted for later so a society can better understand the differences between and man and women’s reaction to a disaster. The community cannot fully plan or mitigate the problem if we don’t know how people will react to a disaster. In this case we need to know gender, age, race, and class to be able to plan effectively and efficiently.
As Americans we are entranced as we watch a fictional movie unfolds before our eyes, it’s the drama and suspense of the earthquake, fire, tsunami, shooting or terrorist attack. In reality, it’s the real earthquake, fire, tsunami, shooting, or terrorist attack that are happening in world. That’s when social and mass media step in. Media paints picture of a disaster.
Both social and mass media from around the world portray women and girls with gender based discrimination; think about the last couple of movies you watched or the news broadcast of the last disaster. Most media images and videos after a disaster are of women suffering, struggling, carrying their children, or in pure shock of the event. These images continue to reproduce discriminatory stereotypes of women. These gender-based stereotypes lead to observations, choices, and decisions in society as a whole. In a disaster, these preconceived perceptions label women as helpless victims. With each disaster around the world, media just continues the cycle. These perceptions camouflage, erode the talents, and capabilities of women and girls around the world. Dr. Fariyal Ross-Sheriff is a graduate professor and the director of the Ph. D program in Social Work at Howard University she stated, “Contrary to media representations of women as helpless victims, I am mindful of the roles of women in other complex emergencies and protracted disasters. Women play multiple roles within their families, communities, and neighborhoods. They obtain information from diverse sources about the emergencies and create vital communication networks to warn about and make preparations for disasters. During war, they hide their sons, brothers, and husbands from oppressive armies; walk for hours carrying their children to seek life-saving refuge” (Ross-Sheriff, 2006).
The population of women throughout the world is 49.55% (World Bank, 2017) but women have a higher mortality rate than men in disasters. In a 2008 study in analyzing disasters from 141 countries over 21 years, more women die during a disaster than men. Higher mortality rates were directly linked to women’s social vulnerabilities. In some societies there were discrepancies and were the consequence of existing inequalities (Neumayer & Plümper, 2007), for example, in some eastern countries women and girls are not taught to swim or climb trees. This inequality has led to the unnecessary deaths of women and girls in a flood or a tsunami because they weren’t taught these life skills (Oxfam, 2005). In the cyclone disasters of 1991 in Bangladesh out of the 140,000 people who had died, 90% of those were women (Ikeda, 1995). “The 2004 Indian Ocean killed four times as many women as men” (O’Rielly, 2017). In 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan, 1.5 times as many women as men lost their lives because the poor residential neighborhoods had heavy damage (O’Rielly, 2017). A study of disaster in industrialized countries such as France, during the heat wave of 2003 “from 35 years of age, the excess mortality rate was marked and increased with age. The mortality rate was 15% higher in women in the heat wave than men with even higher mortality rate depending on location. The locations in France that had a higher mortality rate were located at home of the citizen, in a retirement community and at the hospitals” (Fouille, Rey, Laurent, Paveillion, Bellec, Guihenneuc-Jouyaux, Clavel, Jougla, & Hemon, 2006).
Low income is a social vulnerability. Income directly affects ones housing options therefore locations. A map of the city of New Orleans in 2000 shows the social vulnerability and poverty rates of each parish before Hurricane Katrina. If these two maps are overlaid, you can see there is a direct correlation between social vulnerability and poverty. (See Appendix A Figures 1.1 & 1.2). The income distribution of New Orleans before Katrina, the flooding of New Orleans and the poverty map after Katrina (Appendix Figure 3.1, 4.1 & 5.1) these were areas that were hit the hardest. During hurricane Katrina in the United States most of the trapped victims were Afro-American women with their children, the poorest demographic in New Orleans (Gault, Hartmann, Jones-DeWeever, Werschkul, & Williams, 2006). Poverty is more dominant among certain groups in a community. “The city of New Orleans had (before Hurricane Katrina) a higher percentage of minorities and lower income households compared to the state and national average. Minorities made up 72% of the population in New Orleans, compared to the state average of 36.1% and there were a total of 180,382 households in New Orleans, with an average household size of 2.46 people. The median household income ($31,369) and per capita income ($19,711) in New Orleans were all below the national averages of $44,684 and $24,020, respectively” (US Census Bureau, 2004). “Thirty-eight percent of children younger than 18 were below the poverty level, and 25.9% of women were living in poverty, compared to the state average of 30% of children under 18 and 40% of women living in poverty. Twenty percent of people 65 years old and older were living below the poverty level, but the percentage of women in this age group who were living in poverty was 24.3%”(US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2004). Eighty four percent of New Orleans residents living in poverty were African–American (US Census Bureau, 2004). Thus, many citizens faced several layers of social vulnerabilities based on age, race, gender or income.
Given current mortality rates, it has been theorized that there may be biological or physical differences particularly male muscle and strength. Men can run faster, swim father, and climb higher at a faster rate, and hold on the objects longer than a women can (Ahsan and Khatun, 2004; Ikeda, 1995; Neumayer and Plümper, 2007). During a disaster women maybe pregnant or holding on to an infant or a young child while trying to get to safety. Women also weight less and have a greater chance of being swept away with fast-moving water. Researchers have concluded that these differences cannot fully explain the higher mortality rates of women (Ahsan and Khatun, 2004; Ikeda, 1995; Neumayer and Plümper, 2007).
Roles of Women
Women’s roles in society, no matter where you are in the world are the very similar. They care for their children, older relatives, look after the sick, and help the disabled. Some women work outside the home but the responsibility of the housework is still on the women’s shoulders. Women are also responsible to obtain house hold supplies like food, water, and clothing. They also struggle support them economically. “Everyday challenges of women’s day to day lives when compared to men are: more likely to live below poverty line, live into old age (80+) and to be widowed, head the household alone and below the poverty line, more likely to rent, work part-time, lower earnings with comparable education and work patterns, less likely to have pensions, less likely to have advanced college degrees, more likely to work in low-status occupations, more likely to be a major family caregiver, contribute more hours to domestic labor and volunteer work, higher rates of obesity and hypertension, more likely to live with disabilities or mental illness, more likely to be nursing home residents, more likely to experience partner abuse and sexual assault, and more need for medical services including reproductive health” (Enarson, 2012)(Appendix B Figure 6.1 ).
These challenges of women directly affect their lives to where they work, live, and what school their children attend. Because of their lower educations therefore lower income, their housing locations are in a higher risk for disaster (Appendix A Figure 1.2, Figure 2.1 & Figure 3.1). These maps compare social vulnerability and poverty before Hurricane Katrina and flooding during and after Hurricane Katrina. If you were able to overlay the maps, you could see a direct correlation between social vulnerability, poverty and flooding. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans’s social vulnerable, low income and high poverty neighborhoods. The people of New Orleans were greatly affected. They didn’t evacuate not because of the warnings but because they couldn’t. Chances are they didn’t have a car or at least not a dependable one; they didn’t have the gas money, or money for a hotel. Their family and friends are more than likely in the same financial place that they are in and therefore couldn’t get a ride with them. Even if they could get on a bus to evacuate, they didn’t have the money to get the medicine and other medical supplies they need to take care of daily needs and the elderly. They didn’t want to go to a shelter for safety reasons or fear of violence. With all of those factors against them, they stayed in their homes but only needing to be rescued later. For those with high social vulnerabilities, they simply cannot afford to rebuilt, repair, or to relocate, it will take years to recover after the disaster.
Mitigation is not how to control nature. It is not how to fix the idea of problem the problem on your terms, but rather what is needed for that specific community and how to obtain what is needed. In developing countries, mitigation would also be teaching women and girls to swim and climb trees to save themselves. Building resilience of the community is key. Build a strong foundation for the community out of trust and relationships before a disaster strikes (Chang & Trainor, 2018). In a disaster the people that are in close proximity are the ones that will save you, they are the first first responders. They are your family, neighbors and perhaps a person you don’t even know. In general, most people want to help and have an instinct to help those in need. To build this foundation of trust, relationships, and a sense of community in a society, it might include informal conversation, evacuation drills, mitigation workshops, communication games, and contingency planning.
Diversity is the next step. Work with the whole community to develop disaster mitigation specifically working with woman and children, everyone has their own view point and ideas to bring to the table. Don’t discount anyone. Use the resources of the entire community to be able to identify risks, and also certain emphasis on pregnant women, infants, and the elderly (Mehta, 2009). Also find out the history of disasters in the area from the community, what has worked in the past, what hasn’t, and why. A strong foundation built on trust, relationships, a sense of community, learning from the past will prepare the community for the next disaster.
Social vulnerability, preparedness, and emergency response are at the heart of the public debate, but this is also a story about the difference between women and men in a disaster (Abney & Hill, 1966). The next hurricane, flood, wildfire, tsunami will come and the citizens will be less able than today to be able to survive if we don’t plan for the future. Support systems need to be built through the community through community resources, answers to health concerns, access to warning information filtered through many different channels, economic resources, evacuation routes, public transportation, preplanned shelters specifically with special needs in mind, location awareness, and a disaster planning chart. Location awareness is also a problem during planning processes. Not everyone is able to find their location on the warning map and are unsure of what they should do and how this disaster will effect where they live, therefore the community should be taught their location on a map and what the specific warnings mean. Organization, communication, knowledge, and a plan in place will make the community better able to handle a disaster (Appendix 6.1).
Disaster is a social phenomenon (Quarantelli, 1992). Disaster management is a science to solve “human problems.” The problem is that we are all different because of our experiences, actions and reactions, and we filter everything around us through our own personal filter. A disaster is defined through a human lens relative to other events through social disruption, mortality rate, injuries, damages, and displacement of the population. There are three contributing factors that lead to a higher mortality rate in women, they are: first, social vulnerabilities including but not limited to race, class, gender, age differences, education, and income level, second are women’s roles in society, and third, cultural or society norms. Media from around the world portray women with gender based discrimination. These preconceived stereotypes label women as helpless victims. Because of this label women in general are not valued, respected, considered or heard when planning and mitigating disaster in a community. Women are more likely to live below the poverty line, have lower a lower income for a comparable job, have less education, be head of a single household, less opportunities, support children, and have no pension. The lack of overall resources leads them to live in low income housing where risks are higher, leading to a higher mortality rate in women in a disaster.
In developing countries women and girls should be taught to swim and climb trees to be able to save themselves in a disaster. Build a community of resilience through trust, relationships, and a sense of community before a disaster strikes. This foundation can be built through conversation, drills, planning, workshops and diversity. Support systems through community resources such as preplanned and stocked shelters, location awareness, food banks and supplies will also make a smooth transition for those that need to be evacuated. Information such as warnings systems channeled through many means of communication, evacuation routes, and public transportation. A well thought out plan in place is also pertinent. Gender imbalance is man-made and steps can be taken to rectify it.
Figure 1.1 The social Vulnerability Index for New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina
Figure 1.2 Poverty in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina
Figure 3.1 Poverty in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina
Figure 4.1 Flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina
Figure 5.1 Income distribution in New Orleans and Louisiana, before Hurricane Katrina (US Census Bureau, 2000).
Figure 6.1-Model of Women in Response in Disasters (Weist, Mocellin, & Mofsisi, 1992 but updated by Jeanette Burkhart)
Society, as a Whole, Inclusion of Women
Mitigation Preparedness Recovery Response
Displacement Social Loss Material Loss Disease Health Needs Stress Death
Assistance Priorities Spontaneous Action
Integration of Women
Protection Food Distribution Health Assistance Supplies Housing Rehab
Operational, Political, and Cultural Considerations
Resources Rebuilding Planning Training Employment
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Table 6.1 Challenges of Women’s Everyday Lives: Selected Indicator (Enarson, E. 2012).
Women compared to men, overall
More likely to live below the poverty line
More likely to live into old age (80+) and to be widowed
More likely to head households alone
More likely to head households below the poverty line
More likely to rent
More likely to work part-time
Lower earnings with comparable education and work patterns
Less likely to have pensions
Less likely to have advanced college degrees
More likely to work in low-status occupations
More likely to be major family caregivers
Contribute more hours to domestic labor and volunteer work
Higher rates of obesity and hypertension
More likely to live with disabilities or mental illness
More likely to be nursing home residents
More likely to experience partner abuse and sexual assault
More need for medical services including reproductive health
Women of color
Most earn less than other women
Most earn less than men in same ethnic/racial group
More likely than other women to live in poverty
More likely than other women to live in poverty in old age
More likely than other women to head households alone
More likely than men in their ethnic/racial group to be poor
More likely than other women to live with health problems
More likely than other women to live in poor health
More likely than other women to lack preventative health care
More likely than other women to lack prenatal care
Most live on lower incomes than senior men
More likely than senior men to live in poverty
More likely than grandfathers to care for grandchildren
More likely than senior men to live alone in old age
Less likely than senior men to be married
More likely than younger women to be limited physically
Note: For detailed information, often available on a state or county basis, see the American
Community Survey and other US Census Bureau data, as well as reports from the Centers for
Disease Prevention and Control, the Administration on Aging, the Office of Women’s Health,
the Bureau of Justice Statistics and Department of Justice, and other government agencies.
Advocacy groups and think tanks also provide statistical profiles based on survey research,
including the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the Family Caregiver Alliance, and others.
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