Hard-won Lessons: What Women Know About Disaster

Quick! What comes to mind when you hear “Women and Disaster”? Chances are it’s an image of strong-armed men rescuing tearful women, or women on the sidelines as big men in big trucks spring into action.  The “official story” when these disastrous events disrupt our social and geographic landscape  is one of victimization and vulnerability.

By photographer Greg Henshall, courtesy of the FEMA Photo Gallery.
By photographer Greg Henshall, courtesy of the FEMA Photo Gallery.

In fact, we know from women’s hard-won experience that vulnerability is real. Triggered by technological or environmental  hazards, including climate extremes and uncertainties, disasters are essentially  “made by men”  and  reflect the fundamental fault lines of any society. Two decades of research have demonstrated that, in interaction with the other power dynamics of our time, gender is a critical determinant of disaster social vulnerability, impact, response, and recovery. Popular culture, social institutions, work cultures, family relations, community dynamics, intimate relationships, and of course our bodies and personalities, are highly gendered  and often more so in disasters. Gender inequalities come into play at every turn, and simple gender differences, too. When  the rains stop, new flu strains pop up, or explosions rock the nation, the particular needs and responsibilities of women and girls can indeed be acute, from safe space for nursing moms, continuity in reproductive health care, and equal access to post-disaster construction jobs, to protection from gender violence, emergency child care support, gender-responsive counseling, and opportunities for meaningful participation when key disaster decisions are taken.

By photographer Jacinta Quesada, courtesy of the FEMA Photo Gallery.
By photographer Jacinta Quesada, courtesy of the FEMA Photo Gallery.

But if you’ve seen your grandmother get a household going when evacuation sirens blare, helped your daughter work two jobs to make a new home in a new city for her children or find them clean water to drink, admired your aunt’s months of selfless relief work, or brought family pets and livestock to safety yourself–well, you know how much more there is to the “vulnerable women” narrative.  You get it.

“Women and disaster” is equally a story of women’s self-determination and their participation in realizing a safer future.  The life experiences that women bring to crises, their complex social networks and extensive family care work, the local historical and environmental knowledge they offer, and their considerable skill in the very jobs and occupations that come into play post-disaster—all this is part of what we mean by resilience and should put gender at the center of national efforts to reduce disaster risk.  Cautionary note: As the development choices and social inequalities that embed and perpetuate social vulnerability to disasters are increasingly challenged, a new overwrought image of the “resilient woman” image is as unsupported by social fact and political will as the prevailing discourse of victimization. Rarely does this lead to the increased resources needed to systematically identify the actual needs and actual capacities of women and men, boys and girls in different contexts, address vulnerabilities, build on strengths, and support  the efforts of women and their families to build a more disaster-resilient, sustainable, and more just nation. Whether you care for a disabled partner or frail neighbor, run a shelter for abused women, work with the LGBTQ community, or others marginalized by citizenship status, language, rural or social isolation, you know how very disingenuous the charge of “personal preparedness” is in an era of increasing risk and decreasing social support.

By photographer Leif Skoogfors, courtesy of the FEMA Photo Gallery.
By photographer Leif Skoogfors, courtesy of the FEMA Photo Gallery.

What differently situated women and girls actually see, feel, and do is hard to know—and our knowledge about men, boys, and everyone in between is just as shallow. Happily, more disaster-experienced women are now telling their own disaster stories through quilts, music, blogging, and other media of popular culture, as well as research, bringing gender inequalities and challenges to grassroots sustainability campaigns and to post-disaster recovery efforts.  More women than ever before are visible as first responders, faith-and community-based relief workers, emergency managers, and activists working on gender and climate justice.  Everywhere on our volatile planet, women are documenting both what they lost to floodwaters or wild winds and how they struggle to reclaim loss and refashion their futures.  It’s still harder than it should be for planners, disaster responders, and residents in hazardous environments to learn from women’s hard-won experiences, harder yet to hear from boys and men, but a new account better suited to the “new normal” is now available of why, how, and with what consequences gender, sex, and sexuality shape the possible and impossible– before, during and after disasters in this disaster-prone society of ours.

I wrote a book about this, thinking of Hurricane Andrew when it took our home in Miami, inspired by women and men working to reduce disaster risk, and haunted yet by what I had seen and heard as a feminist disaster researcher in India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. I wrote about the United States, knowing how easily we distance ourselves from these concerns though this is our story, too, and our future.  I welcome your thoughts!

By Elaine Enarson on her book, Women Confronting Natural Disaster: From Vulnerability to Resilience, and her co-edited book with Emmanuel David, The Women of Katrina: How Gender, Race, and Class Matter in an American Disaster, both reviewed in the December 2013 issue of Gender & Society. Click here to read the review. 



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