When women walk the road to resilience

By Ulrika Årehed Kågström, Secretary General, Swedish Red Cross

Ulrika Årehed Kågström recently returned from a field-trip in disaster-prone Bangladesh, where early warning systems and cyclone shelters save thousands of lives annually. Despite progress, she argues that women remain disproportionately affected by disasters and it is time to invest more in strengthening community resilience to redress this imbalance.

The levy is well over one meter high. As I make my way towards the village of Kulkandi, the shallow water in the rice paddies beneath mirrors a grey sky. Further away, the buffalo-charts are lining up to be loaded with slender sugarcanes, whose sword-shaped green leaves stands out in the dry landscape.

This scene will soon change with the arrival of the monsoon rains which will cause the mighty Jamuna River to overflow its banks and flood the surrounding area. Little by little, the ubiquitous river bank erosion will play its part in this silent disaster affecting millions of people every year in low-lying Bangladesh.

As I talk to women in these disaster-prone areas, it becomes apparent how important their role is in disaster response. When the river rises, they are the ones on alert who will gather the cattle, while also packing the household to move the entire family to shelter on a nearby levy. For months, they lead a precarious existence, caring for their family, struggling to survive.

The same vulnerability met me further south, where I visited the island of Dhal Char that is regularly battered by cyclones. Here, the Red Crescent has erected a cyclone shelter, where people can seek refuge from storm winds and rising water. The community level disaster preparedness programme includes an early warning system paired with early action, which features megaphones, sirens, assistance with evacuation and rescue and emergency first aid.

Statistics from Bangladesh following the 1991 cyclone show that 90 per cent of all those killed were female. Today, progress has been made when it comes to ensuring that early warnings are also reaching women in their homes. Nonetheless, we need to take another step toward strengthening community resilience, notably by increasing women’s participation and influence in local decisions.

Everywhere I went in Bangladesh, they stood before me, often as community-organizers and Red Crescent volunteers; women eager to shoulder responsibility and to contribute in building a more resilient local community.  But they were also asking to be heard and wanted answers to numerous questions; When should I go to the shelter? What happens if I don’t go? What does my husband think? What are the sleeping arrangements? Are there bathrooms? I’m pregnant, can I go? What do I do with the animals?

Gender-specific concerns are crucial to saving lives, and attention to a gender-perspective has to be constantly improved in our humanitarian response. From past disasters, such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, for example, we learned that women were disproportionately affected, as many couldn’t swim or flee the tidal surge in time. Cultural constraints were a factor. In some communities, women could not leave the home without male permission.

One of the characteristics of a safe and resilient community is its ability to learn new skills and build on past experience. It must know how to organize itself to identify problems, establish priorities and act accordingly. In the fight against floods, cyclones and other life-threatening hazards, as in public health diseases, women have a key role to play.

For the next four years the Swedish Red Cross and the Bangladesh Red Crescent will be working together on a programme aimed at strengthening the resilience of nearly 150,000 beneficiaries, with a particular focus on increasing women’s participation in their communities.