Take five: On the front line of disasters, women are more at risk and less heard

Nguyen Ngoc Ly is the founder and director of Center for Environment and Community Research, an organization in Hanoi, Viet Nam, advocating for participatory and inclusive environmental governance and climate change action. She is part of the Climate Change Working Group that UN Women works with to expand women’s leadership and participation in climate change action and disaster risk reduction. Ms. Ly will be speaking at a side event on “Addressing the Gender Inequality of Risk towards Ensuring More Resilient Communities in a Changing Climate” co-organized by UN Women at COP22 on 15 November.

Date: 11 November 2016

Nguyen Ngoc Ly Photo: Dang Thuy Trang, CECR
Nguyen Ngoc Ly. Photo: Dang Thuy Trang, CECR

You are at COP22 to talk about "gender inequalities of risk". What is meant by gender inequalities of risk?

In rural areas in Viet Nam, a country severely affected by climate change, 64 per cent of working women are in the agricultural sector. In addition, women are primarily responsible for gathering food and water for their families. They are also the primary caretakers for children, elderly and disabled members of the family. There is no division of labour at home even when women work in the fields, since gender inequality is entrenched in the family and society. Women also do not have access to the same information and knowledge as men. Overburdened with work, they do not have time to engage in community meetings and are less likely to be involved in leadership and decision making processes. These deficits increase their risk and vulnerability to climate disasters.

For example, we work with ethnic women in the Commune Lia, in Quang tri Province, a mountainous area where drought and flash floods are very common. If you call for a meeting to discuss how to prepare for these disasters, you will hardly see any women, although they are working in the fields, growing cassava. But since they don’t get the timely information and knowledge—for example, how to conserve water so that their crops don’t fail, or how to protect their properties and assets during a flash flood—they lose everything.

Climate change and natural disasters often exacerbate gender inequality, unless there is a conscious effort to prevent this. Before the onset of a disaster, women play the role of preparing their households and in the aftermath, they are the ones who clean up debris and work on restoration. In many places, where male members have migrated to find work, women become the heads of household, but remain vulnerable due to lack of access to information, finances and decision-making within the community.

Why is it essential to include women and girls in national climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction strategy?

Women and girls represent more than half of the population in Viet Nam. National policies and plans cannot afford to miss their voices and perspectives.

Women possess first-hand knowledge about natural resources, their families, ecosystems and communities, and their skills are very different from men. In my country, for example, women are recipients of ancestral knowledge and pass these on to the new generation. I remember my mother, who came from very remote area in Viet Nam, used to dry sweet potatoes and keep them in aluminum containers in case of flood and extreme rain. She always inspected the roof and the drainage system in the house to ensure that water could retreat fast. She also had sand bags ready for preventing water from entering to the house. I learned these adaptive methods from her and did the same for my family. Including women in the development of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction strategies is essential for successful implementation.

Why are more women not included in disaster risk reduction and preparedness?

There is very low representation of women in leadership positions in many countries, including Viet Nam. For example, if you look at the members of Flood Control Committees at local and national level, you will not find many (or any) women. Decision-making is perceived as a male role.

The consistent lack of data and analyses about the different impact on and capabilities of women and men drives the lack of understanding and valuing of women’s role in disaster risk reduction. Even when there are laws—for example, in Viet Nam, there is a law on gender equality that mandates governments to take into account gender equality considerations in all other laws and policies—implementation is lacking.

There are cultural and traditional barriers too, particularly in the rural areas, preventing women’s leadership and meaningful participation in disaster risk reduction. Women are considered less important than men and often get less information than men. For example, if you call a community meeting to talk about disaster preparedness, mostly men will participate and speak. Overburdened with care work in addition to pursuing their livelihoods, women experience a real time deficit, which prevents them from seeking and engaging in community activities.

What steps can be taken to make sure that women are represented in disaster risk reduction efforts? 

We need action at multiple levels to ensure women’s participation and leadership in disaster risk reduction. National planning and policy organizations need more capacity building to integrate gender into their respective areas of work and ensure women have decision-making roles.

The media has an important role to play in shaping attitudes and changing the prevalent norms that push women to the backseat of disaster preparedness and management.

None of this is possible without adequate financial resources. Right now, in Viet Nam, there is no financial mechanism set aside for disaster preparedness. Non-governmental organizations working with women on this issue have limited funding. National and international climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction strategies must include women’s engagement and financing for women.

UN Women is launching a flagship programme initiative to combat gender inequalities of risk. What elements and actions will be particularly relevant in your country, Viet Nam?

Disasters are now part of our lives in Viet Nam. It is critical to provide women with the requisite knowledge about climate change, the nature of climate disasters and how to prepare for them. For example, how preparing for a drought relates to conserving water, or how the management of drainage systems and solid waste relate to reducing flood risks.

Another approach that we have found to be effective is to combine and integrate disaster risk reduction training with other income or skills generating programmes. For example, in rural communities where women grow cassava and get technical training from manufacturing companies on how to grow the crop, we include training sessions on preparing for floods and drought that can otherwise destroy their crop.

Many of our local actions with women are already aligned with the UN Women-led flagship programme. However, now under the flagship programme, our work can be organized better and influence policies.