2012-11-21 17:24:46

How to support women and girls in disaster recovery

By Brenda Berkman, cross-posted from MAKERS.com

People are the same the world over. We see a disaster happening and we want to help. Often that impulse to help is short-term and a Band-Aid approach – we hold a bake sale to raise donations; we load a vehicle with canned goods and deliver it to a church for distribution to people displaced from their homes; we collect blankets and warm clothing for those who are suffering. All are worthy efforts in the early days after a disaster when the need to provide food and shelter for disaster survivors is immediate and paramount.

But how many of us know of other kinds of disaster responses? Of the spike in domestic abuse, rape and other incidents of male violence occurring in the Gulf region post-Katrina? That sex traffickers target Filipino children in areas affected by natural disasters? That Japanese families were split up when wives moved themselves and their children out of radiation-impacted areas near Fukushima, leaving their husbands behind?

It remains to be seen how well the United States planned for and responded to women and girls’ needs in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. But one thing all Americans – women and men – can be conscious of and play an active role in, is insuring that the voices, needs and talents of women and girls are not ignored or marginalized in the recovery phase of Sandy.

It is not gender that puts women and girls at risk. It is gender inequality. Like other vulnerable populations — the poor, seniors and the LGBT community – women and girls are disproportionately and differently impacted by disasters. On the other side of the coin, women’s abilities to plan for, respond to and recover from natural disasters have been often ignored and underutilized.

Men are also negatively impacted after disasters by gender stereotypes that deter them from seeking social support, increase their rates of alcoholism and violence, encourage an over-reliance on technological solutions to human problems. But only in the last twenty years have researchers and professionals in disaster management focused on the differing impacts of disaster based on gender.

The Sandy disaster provides an opportunity for the many communities of women and their allies to insist that the recovery from this hurricane and the planning for any future disaster focus on women and girls. Whether you are a business owner or government worker, a doctor or teacher, a donor, volunteer or recipient of relief, you have a role in helping provide a strong voice and a helping hand for women and girls affected by the devastation.

How can we support women and girls in disaster recovery? The Table of Contents of the on-line publication Guidelines for Gender Sensitive Disaster Management provides a roadmap. Paraphrasing many of the chapter headings:

1) Listen to women and empower them to identify their specific needs, recognizing that women will often be also held responsible for meeting the needs of children, the elderly and sick family members.

2) Insure women’s participation in decision-making processes for rehabilitation and reconstruction; formalize roles for women’s advocates in recovery planning.

3) Meet women’s toilet, bathing and health care needs.

4) Target the security and safety of women and children.

5) Provide women with access to psychosocial counseling.

6) Insure women’s participation in decision-making regarding relocation and management of camps and temporary shelters, public housing, childcare and schools.

7) Insure women’s access to information on relief and rehabilitation measures.

8) Insure women’s equal access to compensation payments and rehabilitation measures.

9) Insure women’s equal access to livelihood opportunities, including providing them with jobs as construction and recovery workers and supporting their small businesses.

10) Include awareness of gender-based trauma of men and boys in recovery planning.

See also, the Gender and Disaster Network. This is a searchable portal with many resources from around the world on gender-responsive response and recovery.

In practical terms, we can focus our advocacy and volunteer efforts to achieve the points listed above. We can also support women affected by the disaster by raising money, providing loans, making grants. We can increase our support to domestic violence programs. We can volunteer to clean up damaged day care centers and the homes of older and disabled women. Since women-owned businesses tend to have a higher failure rate, we could shop there for the holidays.

While disasters cause destruction and tragedy, opportunities for positive change often appear afterward. Hurricane Sandy creates an opportunity to include women and girls in the effort to remedy seemingly intractable problems and also better prepare for future challenges. Women and girls possess great skills, dedication and knowledge – we will all benefit from incorporating those perspectives into our response to Sandy.


Brenda Berkman served the City of New York for 25 years before retiring in 2006 as a captain in its storied Fire Department. Her bravery was twofold: Berkman was summa cum laude graduate of St. Olaf College and was practicing law with a New York University J.D. when, in 1977, the Department began, grudgingly, to allow women to test for firefighter positions. The young lawyer, and FDNY applicant, challenged the fairness and relevance of the newly intensified physical test and won a federal sex discrimination lawsuit that truly opened the Department to female firefighters for the first time. Berkman was among the first class of women hired.

Captain Berkman has led organizations of women’s firefighters in both the New York City and nationally while earning one Master’s in American History and another in Fire Protection Management. By now, Berkman’s deep commitment to her Department and to the people of New York has long outlasted the sexual and workplace harassment that came with her pioneering career. To honor friends and colleagues who were lost on 9/11, she volunteers as a guide for walking tours at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center in Lower Manhattan. 

Watch Brenda’s story.

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