Saturday, September 17, 2005

Women in Disasters

We've been operating under the assumption that disasters "just happen". I no longer think so -although I've made the first statement publicly more than a few times. Rather, even in the case of natural disasters, what becomes disastrous about them is at base, the difference between the rich and the poor, the empowered and the powerless. Disastrous social institutions don't just change our disaster response efforts (as though that wouldn't be bad enough) but in fact they help cause the disasters in the first place.

More specifically, gender bias is not typically something we look at in disaster response. Certainly the American Red Cross has an explicit and firmly enforced policy of assisting everyone according to their need. Certainly we acknowledge that women (and other marginalized people, but I can only think about one at a time!) enter the disaster with all the bias and discrimination that occurs in any society. And we know that we are typically blind to our own biases, so we might be inadvertantly perpetrating discrimination. And we know that people in extremis can not be on their socially-regulated best behavior, so some risks to women are enhanced (family violence, for example) during a disaster.

But, would a response sensitive to the needs of women be more effective? Can we even determine what the specific needs of women might be? What would such a response look like? I can (and probably will) turn this into a real paper, complete know... data. But this is a blog; allow me to make some assertions I'll prove later.

Here's a modest proposal for change:

*Integrate women as (primary?) distributors of emergency supplies.
*Incorporate female clients into the decision-making structure of long-term shelters. (Actually I'd be thrilled if the female professionals were routinely seen as equal partners, but that's another story for another time.) And it should be noted that including clients of ANY sort in the decision-making process of a shelter would very likely be a change of policy.
*Enhance local women's associations. Which means that relief organizations need to craft much stronger ties with indigenous support groups everywhere. Now there's a project for a horde of graduate students! Find indigenous support groups, maintain accurate lists of contact people, modestly train them and keep them interested, even though they may never be needed. Egad. But, the people who know how to craft locally-appropriate responses are already in place. It ought to be our job to work for them, rather than the other way 'round.
*Eliminate gender blindness from the research. Put women in the models and see what happens.

I'm not completely starry-eyed. I know these are huge, world-view-altering suggestions and that implementing them would cause some confusion in the ranks and also in the community of need. But they CAN be done. I'll go further. They really must be done for ethical services to be delivered.

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