Op-ed: Immoral hazard: the gender inequality of risk

Co-authored by Yannick Glemarec, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, and Jemilah Mahmood, Under-Secretary-General for Partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)


Whilst the international media reported that over 800 people died in Haiti due to the impact of the recent Hurricane Matthew, a gender breakdown was not given even though your chances of surviving a natural disaster often depends on your sex. This inequality of risk is increasingly important in a world of more frequent and bigger disasters and crises, with almost 100 million people affected by 346 disasters in 2015 alone. And climate change drives these numbers ever higher.

One of the most important angles to this is gender and risk, and the unequal way boys and girls, women and men, experience and are impacted by crisis. This is not news. Almost a quarter of a century ago, the nutritionist JPW Rivers wrote an essay called “Women and Children Last: An Essay on Sex Discrimination in Disasters”. He focused on nutritional status and famines, looking at the ways in which sex discrimination meant that women and girls experienced malnutrition more often and worse than men and boys. But his observations extend beyond famines. In the 1991 cyclones in Bangladesh, some 90% of those who died were women. When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2006, the death rate among adult women was double that of men. More women than men were killed by Ebola because they were the ones who washed and prepared the bodies of those who died from the disease for burial, thereby exposing themselves to infection.

Women have less access to information on how to protect themselves from disasters: for example, girls are less often taught how to swim, a fatal disadvantage in floods. Women’s insecure and informal jobs are the first to go in a crisis. Women and girls are more vulnerable to exploitation like sexual violence and trafficking after a disaster. A 2015 global study by The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) found that those responding to disasters are not aware that gender-based violence (GBV) may increase in disasters, and are neither looking nor preparing for it. Lack of data on the prevalence of GBV during disasters contributes to this lack of awareness.

However, when given the chance, women prove time and again that they can be in the front line of preparing for and responding to disaster, whether in the home, the community or at the highest levels of government, if only they are afforded the opportunity. And yet still our disaster planning and response has not caught up with this basic reality.

We know the main reasons for this.

First, we lack the data and knowledge to allow us to understand the issue and thereby address it properly. For example, when countries were asked to report on one international disaster management framework, 62 of the 70 (a little under 90 percent) that did so, said they hadn’t collected proper sex-disaggregated data.

Second, there’s little political attention to ensuring that disaster risk management policies take into account the gender inequality of risk. Institutions and organisations that work on disaster risk management don’t talk to institutions and organisations that work on gender equality because they don’t see what gender has to do with their work. To help countries fill gaps, IFRC is mapping how national disaster legislation addresses gender and prevention of gender-based violence.

Third, there’s too little money for addressing the gender inequality of risk. Women need investment in things like social protection and affordable insurance, but the importance of that investment is just not appreciated.

Fourth, women aren’t given the opportunity to have their say and represent their own interests in disaster risk management. Particularly at the local level, when plans are drawn up and investments made, women aren’t even in the room.

The good news is that knowing what’s going wrong means knowing how to fix it. The IFRC and UN Women are teaming up to address the gender equality of risk. We are partnering to make sure that: data and evidence is there for gender-sensitive risk management; governments develop gender-sensitive risk management policies and plans; properly dedicated budgets are set aside for gender-sensitive risk management, and women can access social protection and insurance; and women get the opportunity to be active participants in disaster risk management, something which benefits not only women, but their entire communities.

In the last decade disasters claimed some 700,000 lives. Climate change in particular has the potential to drive that number ever higher. If we are to avoid and even reverse that we need to recognize that women and girls are bearing the heaviest burden of disaster risk, but are also our greatest asset in managing that risk. In a world where disasters highlight a reality of winners and losers, this is one of our best opportunities for a win-win solution. It’s time to turn “women and children last” on its head, and reduce these disasters within disasters.

This op-ed was originally produced and published on the Huffington Post as part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.’s 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Morocco (7-18 November). To view the entire series, visit here.