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Step Up for Disaster Risk Reduction: Appreciate, Encourage and Empower the Female Voice

The social role assigned to women as caregivers and nurturers naturally extend to disaster risk management, to secure life and the continuity of livelihoods, and to maintain the life support systems, in times of disasters. It would therefore be imprudent to understate the role women play in tackling emergency situations and in building resilience within their families and communities when a disaster strikes. Incontrovertibly, the societal position of women as agents of change needs to be stepped up.

Natural disasters devastate the lives and livelihoods of millions of people and cause substantial loss to the economy. Around 200 million young people worldwide are affected each year by reported disasters and thousands of them are killed and injured. A proper disaster risk management framework would enable the affected population, especially women, in taking immediate and correct steps in emergency situations.

Women need to be prepared and empowered to tackle precarious situations and save lives during natural disasters like the recent floods in Bihar.
Women need to be prepared and empowered to tackle precarious situations and save lives during natural disasters like floods. (Source:

In view of the transformational efforts by women in disaster prone areas, the UN General Assembly chose this year’s theme for the International Day for Disaster Reduction, celebrated world over on 13th October, as ‘Women and Girls: the [in]Visible Force of Resilience’. A wide range of events including tsunami drills and seismic risk discussions, gender-based violence workshops, community development work, poster and essay contests, panel discussions, gender awareness campaigns and education seminars were organised world over to celebrate the day. Women were given special awards and recognition for their exemplary work in disaster risk reduction and building resilience in their respective communities. United Nations has urged women and girls to be at the forefront of risk mitigation and disaster management. UN has also encouraged women to take up key leadership roles in disaster risk reduction initiatives and programs.

Globally, women need to be given greater space in the government’s disaster risk reduction programs and development plans for the hazard zones. Involving women as active participants in all aspects of disaster program planning and implementation would mean in true sense harnessing the hidden capability and realising women as a collective force of resilience. Educating and training women and girls in the areas of environmental and natural resource management; governance; and urban and land use planning and social and economic planning – the key drivers of disaster risk – can enable and empower them to bring sustainable development in their region and develop an implementable disaster response mechanism for their community. In this regard, UNESCO’s Global Partnership on Women and Girls’ Education has been training young women in disaster-prone countries such as Haiti, Myanmar, Pakistan and Indonesia on how to reduce their vulnerability to disasters and increase their resilience.

Disaster Management and Women: The Indian Context

In India, UNDP’s Disaster Risk Management (DRM) project has been able to mobilize volunteers through the initiative. This sense of civic involvement proved to be an invaluable help during the recent floods in Bihar. Kiran Devi, a 35 year old, frail and shy woman, and a homemaker with two children, displayed the woman power and resilience when the floods devastated the homes in Duwania Chowk (Supaul district) in Bihar. She was one of the community volunteers who made a difference by preparing food for at least 2000 people whose homes and lives were washed away by the flood. Kiran made her way through 4 feet of water and also carried food for people in camps about 3 kilometres away from her home. In addition, she provided first aid relief to the injured in the floods – thanks to the UNDP first aid training she received in 2007.

Kiran Devi, a community volunteer in supaul, Bihar
Kiran Devi, a community volunteer in supaul, Bihar (Source: UNDP India)

The women of Villupuram district in the state of Tamil Nadu have another such fascinating story to tell. Every year when it rains heavily during the second part of the monsoon in November and December, the major inter-state Thenpennai River and its small tributary, the Malattaru, turn into demons, devouring rice fields and neighbourhoods. Planning ahead of the next round of heavy rains, village women take the lead in preparing communities for the hazards that lie ahead. They learn and teach swimming and rescue, store life jackets and makeshift rafts, and provide training on how to protect the community from the looming floods from both physical and human damage. The initiative is an offshoot of a micro-credit programme that a local NGO, Kalvi Kendra, has promoted through women’s self help groups.

A similar feat was shown by educated Indian women at the critical time when earthquake hit Sikkim in 2011. This time it was two superwomen in Indian Air Force (IAF), 26-year-old Arunima Vidhate and 25-year-old PP Ranade, who were two among the 18-member helicopter pilots. Vidhate, a girl from Pune, has been appointed at the Bagdogra airport was one of the first person who conducted a minute survey at the tremor-ridden region, especially the North-Sikkim, the worst affected area of the earthquake. She noticed during the aerial recee numerous landslides and how areas were cut off because of that. This helped the team of pilots in providing timely relief work, air-dropping food packets, medicines and other relief material for the affected people.

Local self help group members in Rangareddy Palayam village draw a local map on the main street, marking disaster-prone spots as part of a risk assessment exercise. Source:
Local self help group members in Rangareddy Palayam village draw a local map on the main street, marking disaster-prone spots as part of a risk assessment exercise. (Source:

Recently, Nagaland State Disaster Response Force (NSDRF) trained a women’s team, equipped to respond to any kind of disaster. Ninety one jawans of 15 India Reserve Battalion’s (IRB) mahila unit recently underwent training at the Central Training Institute at Toluvi, under the guidance of National Disaster Response Force, Guwahati. Similarly, the community disaster resilience Fund (CDRF) pilot organized by the National Alliance for Disaster Risk Reduction (NADRR) in 2008 led to channelling of funds directly to communities in 88 villages of 11 multi-hazard prone districts of eight Indian states with the objective to address their own resilience building priorities through community and women-led initiatives.

Factors affecting the resilience of women

  • Division of labor
  • Visibility levels
  • Human development factors (nutrition pattern, literacy levels & health)
  • Recourse to legal protection (inheritance/
  • land rights)
  • Survival skills
  • Access to information
  • Supply of information
  • Access to resources (emergency aid/ loans/
  • insurance)
  • Influence over decision-making processes

(Source: Adapted from WBI Distance Learning: Gender Aspects of Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction)

Members of a women’s self-help group participates in a community-based disaster risk management training in India.
Members of a women’s self-help group participates in a community-based disaster risk management training in India.

Oxfam India, an NGO, recently conducted a project on Women’s Empowerment and Disaster Mitigation in East UP and North Bihar. Among its various achievements related to community development, the project succeeded in developing a reliable and sustainable Community Based Flood Preparedness and Mitigation System that combines disaster management and livelihoods. Besides, over 7000 women have been covered under the Rights Based Education Programme that combined building basic literacy skills with awareness on rights and entitlements.

After the tsunami disaster when cyclone Thane hit Tamil Nadu coast in 2011, a large number of self help groups of women were actively involved in relief and rehabilitation process. They were also active after Nisha Cyclone in 2006. Subsequently these groups have undergone several training programmes on disaster risk reduction offered by Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS International), a global network of women-led grassroots organizations and Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), an organisation directed primarily at women and their integration in the development process. These trained women’s groups came together and formed a Federation to work and offer their knowledge on disaster preparedness and risk reduction on a sustained basis. There are two such Women’s Federations; one in Cuddalore and another at Nagapattinam.

Though many NGOs and state bodies are working towards gender inclusion in disaster response training and disaster management, the reach is still limited. Not every woman in every disaster prone village is getting trained. It has therefore become imperative for disaster management NGOs and the government bodies to scale up and promote the role of women in disaster preparedness and recognise their competency in crisis management. Even though women have not received enough support till date, they continue to play a critical role in all aspects of emergency management in the disaster affected areas – from front-line recovery and supply issues to long-term community development to shape future resilience.

Women are taught the basics of risk management so that they are not completely at the mercy of natural elements
Women are taught the basics of risk management so that they are not completely at the mercy of natural elements (Source: Self-Employed Women's Association, SEWA)

Gender equality is an essential element in building resilience to disasters. Time has come to witness more women as volunteers for disaster recovery initiatives and re-building efforts at the community level, as disaster risk managers at the program planning and national policy development level and as key decision makers in the government and international disaster management organisations. The key messages of IDDR 2012 very well point to the key actions that the authorities and the disaster management groups need to take –

  • Empower women & girls for a safer tomorrow
  • Women & girls are powerful agents of change
  • A resilient community is a gender-sensitive community

Don’t ignore the female voice. Appreciate it, Encourage it and Empower it.

For more on IDDR visit: and


Kanchana is an expert in marketing communications with experience in diverse industries and organizations like Bank of America, Business Standard and Risk Management Solutions Inc. She has been a leading participant in several business forums both in India and abroad. Kanchana is also an avid writer and is a regular contributor to various web media on topics of varied interest.

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