Delft, The Netherlands, 10 Mar 2014

Women's Day Conference: sharing science and practice in emergencies

On the occasion of International Women's Day, UNESCO-IHE organized a conference on tapping into the unlocked potential of women in emergencies. Disaster risk reduction and emergency professionals exchanged ideas and debated key issues underlying the science and practice of the feminization of emergencies. The day was moderated by the passionate duo Maria Luisa Salingay from the Philippines and Tom Ogol from Kenya, who shared their experiences combatting natural and humanitarian disasters in their countries.

Women as key stakeholders in decision making

Maria Luisa Salingay, MSc student in Water Quality Management at UNESCO-IHE shared a moving story with the audience about why she chose to come to study in the Netherlands. "I chose to leave my comfort zone, a nice family life with four kids after I personally experienced a typhoon that hit the Phillippines a few years ago. The tragedy I witnessed made me want to get the best water education there is, so that I can make a real difference in my country." Maria argued that the issue of gender equality should be placed in the core of our society, the family. Both minds, of men and women need to work together to address problems of inquality.

Tom Ogol, MSc student in Hydrology and Water Resources at UNESCO-IHE, drew on his experience as an aid worker in Dadaab, a large refugee camp in North West Kenya. "Women in the camp also have aspirations and ambitions. Looking after the family is so time consuming that there is little time left for them to develop other skills. If men and children contribute by keeping themselves busy with other things, women can generate a livelihood and become part of decision making processes." Tom gives an example of a well built closer to the camp so that women don't have to walk long distances to the river. In the end they kept walking long distances to collect water because they used this time to catch up with each other. They shared problems and were chit chatting like friends do. This is a clear example of women not being included in the process of building a water well.

Empowerment requires a change in social and gender norms

In the beginning of her career with UNHCR almost 20 years ago, Diane Goodman, Deputy Director of UNHCR Bureau for Europe arrived in Tanzania during the time of the Rwanda genocide. Diane: "The situation was overwhelming, the horrors the refugees had suffered. Women had not been included in the committees that were established. At that time it was not obvious to my male collegues. They said this is an emergency so we don't have time for that. If they particpate who is going to take care of the children? What if they become pregnant? Cliche questions. Now women are more involved and perfectly able to do so."

Unfortunately there are still a lot of problems due to recent conflicts in for example Syria and the Central African Republic. However, Diane Goodman believes that forced displacement also creates opportunities to overcome gender inequalities. Away from home they can start over and take control over their future. This can only work if they receive the appropriate skills training agues Diane Goodman: "They need accounting and entrepreneurial skills to run a business, not just access to micro loans. Empowerment requires a change in social and gender norms as well as community structures."

Community managed disaster risk reduction

Simone Filippini, Director of Cordaid brought a strong argument that NGOs do not make full use of dynamics in local communites. "We have to tap into what they are doing and help them to further increase their efforts. In doing so we should pay more specific attention to men instead of women. When they loose their income, their livelihood, they lose there dignity and with that problems such as agression and alcohol abuse arise. NGOs should do proper gender analysis before we start doing our good stuff and share this data with others". Simone mentiones the manual that Cordaid developed on community managed disaster risk reduction that can be downloaded from their website.

A resilient community is a gender sensitive community

In her presentation, Elizabeth Longworth,  Director of UNISDR focuses on the impact of disasters on women. The mortality rate is much higher, they posess less life saving skills. Social constructs put women in a different position making them more vulnerable. Just as her former speakers, Elizabeth argues that the exclusion of women is a lost opportunity. She speaks about their intangibility of holding the social fabric together in terms of the community, town, etc.

Elizabeth Longworth also points out that the real problem lies in every rainy season or living in an area with permanent drought. This is a constant problem, not just one disaster. She calls this slow onset hazards versus sudden onset hazards. "Even today the gender perspective is still largely excluded in disaster risk reduction plans. What needs to change is that we stop seeing women as victims but as resources. Gender is not a women's issue, but a societal issue. Countries lack accountability for this. At least we can offer them a monitoring tool now, but there is still a long way to go," Elizabeth Longworth elaborated.

Lessons from my family

Valerie Nkamgang Bemo is Senior Programme Officer Emergency Response at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She takes the audience back to her youth, where her grandmother played a important role. "My grandmother was a farmer and I was so impressed how she was doing stuff. She was really powerful. If you want something to happen, a decision to be made, we had to talk to her. She always managed to make it happen. This is my personal experience, you need a man to say something but a woman to do something! In many cultures the elders have the power, although women power is more invisible, it's definitely there. In emergency settings people often don't realize that they not only loose their house, but also their home. We tend to focus on providing shelter, but how do we give them back their home, their social network?"

Smart toilet

PhD fellow Fiona Zakaria and Professor Damir Brdjanovic presented a new innovative toilet for emergency sanitation. The toilet can be transported easily and has a solar system on the roof. "Inventions can only become innovations when they are applied", according to Damir Brdjanovic, Professor of Sanitary Engineering at UNESCO-IHE.

Fiona Zakaria: "Women in emergencies. It is about strength, surviving, building up another life in the displacement camp. My dream is to make sanitation with dignity. It's a long journey but we are about to pilot this experimental toilet in the field."



Connect with us

Never miss a thing!