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Giving women voice during disaster

By Tonya Muchano

“I THOUGHT it would be a normal flood like the ones that happen often here; but this time was different,” recalled Vittoria Amosse, who until 2008 lived in a small village on the Zambezi floodplain in Mozambique.

Major flooding that year forced Amosse and her family to flee, taking only what few goods they could carry.

She lost everything, including her home and livestock.

Now she lives with her husband and five children in the Ndambuenda resettlement neighbourhood set up by the Mozambican government to accommodate the many communities displaced by natural disasters in the region.

Last week the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that during the next two or three months parts of southern Africa will likely experience some of the worst flooding seen in more than 20 years.

But for women, the impact can be far greater, and have longer-lasting consequences.

Natural disasters are often considered a “gender neutral” topic — that is, something which affects everyone equally.

However, according to Indian author and activist Ammu Joseph, “every issue has a different impact on different sections of the population, this includes women.”

Gender issues are not just “women’s issues”.

They impact on the ability of entire communities to plan for and recover from disasters.

This in turn impacts economic and social development.

Women’s vulnerabilities during and after disasters is linked to their role and status in society.

A study by the London School of Economics has shown that gender inequality does put women at risk.

The study states that “gender differences in deaths from natural disasters can be directly linked to women’s economic and social rights. So when women lack basic rights, more women than men will die in disasters.”

These vulnerabilities are often heightened in rural areas, where traditional roles and values are more strictly maintained.

Women may lack the authority to make crucial decisions, such as what personal goods to take during evacuation, or even when to evacuate.

Aster Sande also lost her home during the 2008 floods in Mozambique.

She and her family waited days before finally evacuating, because “my husband said that no one could leave the house to go somewhere else because the situation was difficult.”

He was worried that if the floodwaters receded and the house was left empty, they would lose their goods to thieves.

Cases like this are reflected in other countries as well.

In Bangladesh, for example, women and children have been swept away by floodwaters while waiting for the man of the house to come home and order an evacuation.

Disasters also create additional challenges related to the daily work women perform — taking care of the home, gathering firewood and water and childcare.

When their lives and routines are disrupted by disasters, these tasks become much more difficult, and can take a long time to re-establish, especially if the family has been displaced, or if disaster recurs.

Disrupted routines mean less time spent on productive, income-generating activities, which can lead to increased poverty.

This, in turn, can deepen existing gender inequalities.

In Kenya, IPSNews reports that poverty associated with drought is linked to girls being withdrawn from school.

In Uganda, food crises associated with climate change have been linked to early marriage for girls, as struggling families exchange their daughters for bride price.

Research on gender violence during disasters has also shown that after natural disasters, reports of both domestic and sexual violence increase.

The media has an important role to play in confronting the inequalities and vulnerabilities that women face during and after disasters.

Community radio in particular is extremely important in rural areas as it is often the primary — or sole — source of information.

Women make up a large proportion of radio listeners in Africa.

How community radio incorporates gender into their disaster programming can have a big impact on women’s ability to respond and recover when natural disasters strike.

One problem is that families do not have emergency plans, making evacuation confusing and stressful.

If women’s needs before and during disasters are better communicated, women will know how to respond when the need arises.

Community Media for Development Productions produces entertainment-education programmes mainly for community radio stations.

The Johannesburg-based organisation recently produced a 26-episode serial radio drama on natural disasters for the International Organisation for Migration in Mozambique, as part of the UN Delivering as One Joint Programme on Disaster Risk Reduction.

The drama, entitled Bravos do Zambeze (Zambezi Braves), aims to encourage disaster preparedness, quick response and adaptation.

Within this aim, the programme also looks at issues related to gender, including gender-based violence, women as strong decision-makers, and the challenges women face in re-establishing their routines.

The drama aired during the 2009-2010 flood season in the Zambezi river region and made up a significant part of local radio stations’ disaster programming.

Although the main focus was disaster risk reduction, it was clear that the gender dynamics in the drama were also having an impact.

But including gender angles in disaster programming can also simply mean interviewing women in the community, encouraging women to call in to talk shows, or inviting a guest speaker from a local NGO.

? Tonya Muchano is the projects co-ordinator at CMFD Productions.

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