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Women, gender and emergency management: new i. . .

Women, gender and emergency management: new insights

By Bridget Tehan.
Published on the VCOSS Voice on 31 May 2013.

The role of gender and the needs of women in emergency events, particularly bushfires and floods, have been overlooked in Australia. A series of recent reports – many giving voice to affected women – are addressing that gap and make for compelling reading.

In emergency management policy and practice in Australia, women still are typically seen as victims, overlooking their role as breadwinners, business owners and/or employees. They are also most often the primary family and community carers and face increased workloads post-disaster.

Failing to acknowledge these extra responsibilities hinders their abilities to recover or maintain economic momentum, with support services geared towards practical rather than strategic gender needs.

But we are starting to see a shift in that focus.

A new report that explores the economic issues and challenges that impact women in disaster affected areas in Victoria and Queensland has been released by Security4Women and Justice Equality Rights Access International.

Women’s Voices from the Floodplains describes the skills women have gained by participating in community rebuilding, and how these can further empower women economically in the future. It also outlines how disaster relief can be improved to address sustainable economic recovery in helping to rebuild  business and/or resume  income pathways for Australian women.

The report reveals how the economic situation of many women has changed since the floods and identifies where improvements are needed. It points to:

  • displacement of women from communities and support networks
  • social isolation, trauma and conflict in family relations
  • ongoing stress and time pressure due to lack of insurance pay-outs or action
  • inconsistent support for women taking time off work to deal with disaster
  • flood relief and support services that are not geared to the diversity of women or their needs, do not address local needs, and create confusion about assistance available to small businesses, including farms
  • the need to strengthen local economies and support local jobs growth
  • specific challenges for women in business and the economy
  • long-term increase in unpaid work, including extra caring duties
  • long-term health implications for women and communities living in extended stress and resource poor situations
  • ‘creeping poverty’ in rural communities impacting mainly on women
  • perceived increase in levels of family violence and marriage breakdown.

Women’s Health Goulburn North East (WHGNE) has published two reports and a number of related resources on gender and disaster including:

Beating the flames: women escaping and surviving Black Saturday records the critical roles of 21 women during the 2009 Victorian Bushfires, when many women were left alone, often with children, to escape or fight the sudden fires. Some made the decision to leave early and returned to a community changed physically and emotionally forever. Women’s experiences are rare in historical accounts and this is an important representation of women’s voices that can help us to understand the experience and impact of disaster from more than one perspective.

The Way He Tells It: Relationships after Black Saturday captures the experience and knowledge of women who survived the 2009 Bushfires in relation to domestic violence. Two years of accounts from women and workers affected by the bushfires has yielded complex and disturbing findings. Social services workers – including police, domestic violence workers, counsellors and recovery workers – also shared their knowledge and insight into the effect of the disaster on personal and community relationships. Affected women speak of their experiences of post-bushfire violence. The report argues for a different-gendered approach to disaster — one that is based on the reality of women’s experiences.

The Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre recently published a background briefing on gender and bushfire. The briefing highlights the importance of gender in the context of Australian bushfires and considers how the international literature on gender and disaster relates in the areas of risk perception and exposure, preparedness behaviour and communication, and response and recovery.

A Red Cross briefing paper, Gender and Disaster Management, looks at the importance of gender within disaster management and offers some suggestions about how to integrate gender into programs and strategies.  Although this briefing paper focuses on Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in terms of their international disaster management work, it contains some useful information and tools when considering gender in terms of emergency management.

Firefoxes Australia is a grassroots support group that was developed in the Kinglake Ranges in 2009 following the Victorian Bushfires and is auspiced by Uniting Care Cutting Edge. Its aims are to improve mental health and well being for participants; reduce isolation and increase morale; build individual capacity and create positive networks and friendships with disaster affected women nationally and internationally. In conjunction with Black Saturday survivors, Firefoxes Australia and filmmaker Helen Newman along with the Victorian Women’s Trust, created a documentary outlining women’s recovery processes.

The current edition of the Australian Journal of Emergency Management (Volume 28, No 2, May 2013) also contains a number of articles on gendered prevention, preparedness and response in emergency management.

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