The Voice of Women in Silent Crises - Asturias Award Roundtable

Published: 7 February 2013

Presentation by Mette Buchholz, Gender Adviser,
IFRC Principles and Values Department, 24 October 2012

What is a silent disaster?

The Red Cross Red Crescent defines a silent disaster as a small or medium size sudden or slow onset disaster or crisis. Such smaller disasters have increased four times during the last decade, mainly due to the effects of climate change. Around two thirds of all our disaster-related operations are in response to such silent disasters. 

Why don’t we hear the voices of women in these disasters?

Disasters can affect all human beings. However they are not neutral in the way they impact people. Young women and girls are often excluded from needs assessments and absent of any data collection. Studies from recent disasters have found that women, girls and boys are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men.

For example:

Bangladesh.  Statistics from the Bangladesh 1991 cyclone show that 90 per cent of all dead were female. The reasons of this was found to be the fact that many women and children were trapped  inside their homes and did not receive warnings by male disaster preparedness teams, due to cultural constraints.

After the Tsunami

The 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia showed four times more female dead. The lack of gender perspective in response actions led to widowers not getting adequate support and assistance in learning how to care for their surviving children.

After the earthquake in Haiti

An increasing number of displaced women and girls were subject to sexual and gender based violence. This was often found to be the result of badly designed shelters and water sanitation facilities in the camps. 

Droughts and floods

It is a silent disaster when drought or floods forces rural families to become displaced in camps, and poverty forces families to send off their young daughters into forced early marriage, or young girls and women become forced into selling sex in order to get access to relief items. It is also a silent disaster when women and young girls are exposed to human trafficking as a result of being displaced.

Emergency assistance does not respond to specific needs of women. Is it normal more than 50 per cent of world population can be invisible today in 2012? What does this invisibility/inequality cost?

So how do we in the RCRC hear the voices of the silent in silent disasters?

Examples of best practices

In Bangladesh

As a result of lessons learned during the 1991 floods with mainly female victims, the Red Crescent adopted a new strategy to recruit at least one third female volunteers to join the disaster response teams. This also included providing skills building and income generation to women as well as to highlight the role played by women and girls in building resilience at the community level.

In Haiti

Where participative consultation with vulnerable girls and women contribute to identify needs, combined with violence prevention awareness and volunteer training.

In Malawi

A major effort is undertaking by the National Society to empower girls through support groups and in schools where girls gain the courage of being more self-assertive by improving their self-esteem and making their own decisions on the problems they face.

In the face of food insecurity

Around 60 to 80 per cent of food production in developing countries is produced by women. The Red Cross and Red Crescent are working with the women who are faced with the challenges of food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition. We bring about equal opportunities for women in the agricultural sector to mitigate their vulnerability and increase their production. By ‘equal opportunities’ in the food security sector we mean that:

  • women and men will have  equal access to and control over resources,
  • equal powers of participation and decision-making,
  • equality under the law,

Girls and women are invisible in disasters for many reasons, in spite of the fact that it is women and girls who are the most vulnerable in disasters. Disaster cycle is a continuum, and the vulnerable situation of women and girls needs to be effectively taken into account before, during and after a disaster.

3 major commitments of the Red Cross and Red Crescent

  • Systematic incorporation of gender and diversity in needs assessments, programme & service delivery, tools and training,
  • Improvement of the gender and diversity composition of our Red Cross Red Crescent organisation at all levels,
  • Reduction of gender inequality, gender discrimination and violence in the community.

The Red Cross/Red Crescent is both a humanitarian and a development actor. In our efforts to contribute to the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals, we consider the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to successfully address poverty, hunger and disease. Voluntary and community-based action are paramount to make a difference through all-inclusive approaches, involving women and girls but also men, community leaders and elders to revisit existing models and operationalize sustainable solutions.