Women’s voices must be harnessed in disaster risk management

RECENTLY, the impact of natural disasters have been felt negatively in some countries in southern Africa which include Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, bringing memories and long term effects that will be very difficult to erase. The viciousness and destructive nature of Cyclone Idai will stand as a test case in human history on the part of the countries involved as well as the southern African region as a whole. The magnitude of destruction was quite immeasurable and unquantifiable, leaving women and children more exposed and hapless than ever before.

Natural disasters do not only render women and children helpless and more vulnerable, but they also pose serious challenges of overcoming psycho-social and economic obstacles. Although it is within their lack of ability to cope, impacts of natural disasters normally affect the poorest, the most vulnerable and marginalised groups, due to their exposed, neglected and often peripheral nature. This is a state of affairs which has been nursed for centuries until it was sufficiently internalised and accepted as part and parcel of the living phenomena.

Women and children are always at risk, not that they are seen as vulnerable, but they are always weighed down by the baggage of patriarchy and unequal power relations, perpetuated by unfair historical and generational negative tendencies. This is compounded by the fact that, in our societies and midst, they don’t normally decide, lead and make their voices heard. Such traits are still manifesting themselves and were even evident during and after Cyclone Idai. Our own national television, the Zimbabwe Television interviewed more males compared to their female counterparts. This doesn’t mean that the interviews were designed in such a deliberate attempt to interview males more than females, but it just happened. For one to notice this anomaly, the situation required, one to put on gender lenses, in order to visualise these procedural and information gaps.

In this regard, if the story of Cyclone Idai was to be retold, it would tilt directly or indirectly in favour of the males’ world-views and experiences. To come up with a balanced perception of events, its actual unfolding and its impact on affected communities; inclusive selection of interviewees would have actually helped. These are some of the several factors which often militate against women during the times of disasters. They also include limited livelihood options, restricted access to goods and services, inability to recover lost asserts and above all, lack of meaningful voices to be heard. In this regard, failure to sufficiently and sustainably situate female concerns in disaster recovery and management strategies, normally has its costs and repercussions too.

These recovery and management gaps are part of the inhibiting framework resulting from gender blindness with regard to sustainable responses to natural disasters. Collective efforts are required to remove inborn and procedural bottlenecks which perpetuate inequalities leading to making already bad situations worse for women and children as well as affecting resilience to climate change impacts.

The first and critical point of make in mainstreaming women voices into disaster risk management is at the community and local levels. This is a critical level in making sure that women and other beneficiaries are empowered.

Women’s roles should not continue being restricted to the usual routines such as fetching water, household chores, looking after children and seeing to it that their husbands are well-fed even without enough food being provided. Women need to drive adaptation programmes in their communities by designing, planning and engaging in sustainable nutritional gardens, fish farming, horticulture, forest regenerations, pen feeding and small-scale dairy, among a host of many so that they realise the power to bargain and having ownership of their products. Women also need to be able to study weather and rainfall patterns as well as early warning systems in order to plan adequately and engage in adaptive measures aimed at bringing food to their households. These would make the aftermaths of disasters more bearable because there is time for grieving, counting losses, rebuilding and moving on.

Instead of being products of change, women should be the agents of change, where they participate in transforming, not only their lives, but also the lives of their communities. Being agents of change, equips women with visionary skills, necessary for life-long survival strategies and resilience in the new-knowledge economy. Women need to participate in the production of goods and services for the fulfilment of basic needs. They also need to have comprehensive knowledge of their physical and socio-cultural environment necessary for community mapping and networking skills. In this regard, they will be able to tell their own stories about successes and community based adaptation challenges with regard to effects of climate change rather than being the stories
themselves.

Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes here in his own capacity and can be contacted on: petrovmoyt@gmail.com

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