Disasters reinforce social inequalities. People who are marginalised because of their gender, age, disability, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation are more likely to suffer in a crisis.
In the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake, for example, the death rate among the total population in the coastal area of Miyagi was 0.8 percent, against 3.5 percent for registered disabled persons. People aged 65 years and over accounted for 56 percent of those who died in the disaster, and 89 percent of related deaths afterwards.
In Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake, the risk of sexual and gender-based violence significantly increased in relief camps. According to Amnesty International, the combination of unsafe shelters, inadequate toilet facilities and a lack of protective measures for survivors of sexual violence put women at greater risk of further attacks, with women less inclined to report rape.
The needs of vulnerable groups tend to be overlooked in disaster risk management (DRM), making them even more vulnerable to the impacts of disaster. After the 2010 floods in Pakistan, older people found aid distribution points inaccessible. HelpAge International reported that 40 percent of the elderly were at risk of malnutrition, as their nutritional needs had been completely overlooked.
Social exclusion reflects a lack of respect for human rights. Everyone has the right to build capacity to protect themselves in times of crisis, and everyone has the right to take part in decision-making that will impact on their lives.
Social exclusion and inequalities aggravate the vulnerability of people and communities to disaster risks. People who are marginalised because of their gender, age or disability too often face discrimination in employment and are less likely to engage in politics. When DRM activities fail to recognise the diversity of people’s needs and views, they may be ineffective and perpetuate existing inequalities.
SLOW TO ACT
DRM can lose a huge amount of knowledge and assets by excluding those labelled as ‘vulnerable’. These groups are best placed to assess their own needs and to plan how to meet them during and after emergencies.
For instance, older people contribute to household security through their accumulated experience of disasters, traditional knowledge of natural resource management and provision of child care. In Darfur, 29 percent of 4,000 older people living in camps surveyed by HelpAge International looked after orphans - most caring for two or more children.
Yet, too often, those most affected by earthquakes, droughts or floods are poorly represented in decision-making processes on disaster risk at both national and community levels.
At the recent Fourth Conference of the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction in London, Maureen Fordham, a leading expert on the integration of gender perspectives in DRM (see the Gender and Disaster Network), asked whether a policy framework focused on disasters can be a means of achieving transformative social change.
It was a pertinent question because the DRM community has yet to make significant progress in integrating gender perspectives, cultural diversity and similar considerations in decision-making processes - even after more than three decades of research documenting the need for DRM to become more inclusive.
DRM is traditionally viewed as ‘men’s business’, with male-dominated ways of planning and risk reduction strategies that do not systematically recognise and understand women’s views and needs.
ODI’s Guide for Decision-Makers to the Future Framework for DRM highlights how engaging different groups - including children, adolescents, people with disabilities or indigenous communities - in the design and delivery of DRM activities still isn’t happening.
Negotiations for the new global framework to reduce disaster risk will run until March 2015 when governments are due to approve the Hyogo Framework for Action 2 (HFA 2), and we must ensure that political negotiations on environment and development issues include all members of society.
According to Fordham, this goal requires a monitoring and evaluation process that must be independent and that fully captures the outcomes of mainstreaming equality and inclusion in DRM policy and practice. The monitoring process of the current HFA relies on governments’ annual self-review of their DRM planning, which questions the accountability of inclusion efforts.
Gender-sensitive indicators do exist. The HFA evaluation form asks: ‘Does DRM planning rely on gender disaggregated vulnerability and capacity assessments?’ ‘No’, replied 11 out of 40 countries in 2013. France’s report, for example, states very honestly that authorities involved in DRM do not consider using gender-sensitive approaches to be relevant to inform policies or design programmes.
Making DRM programming inclusive is not legally binding, unfortunately. Governments are free to report progress in DRM in any way they like, and they do not risk much by showing a lack of commitment in ensuring the participation of marginalised groups.
How can this change?
Fordham says an independent panel of diverse international experts must conduct the evaluation process. Such a panel would also consider practices that bring about real change, to ensure that women are not intimidated to speak out nor their views overlooked.
I welcome the nice language included in the proposed elements to be considered during the first preparatory committee in Geneva on July 14, around the principles of non-discriminatory participation and effective equality.
But to narrow the lasting gap between policy and practice, this discourse must be backed up by clear objectives to ensure inclusion, meaningful indicators to assess progress against those objectives, and an independent evaluation process. Otherwise, we may well embark on another decade of self-reporting with no real transformation.
Dr. Virginie Le Masson is a research officer on social development, climate and the environment with the Overseas Development Institute.