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Gender in DRR - Mainstreamed into invisibility

Does gender mainstreaming make it more difficult to ensure women’s concerns are addressed?

26 May 2022

By Sara Bradshaw; Ksenia Chmutina; Jessica Field; Maureen Fordham; Virginie Le Masson; Hanna Ruszczyk; Olivia Walmsley.

Gender mainstreaming (i.e. seeding gender topics/representatives into all technical areas) has now become standard and accepted practice in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and development. However, mainstreaming may actually make it more difficult to ensure women’s concerns are addressed since, once mainstreamed, gender becomes the responsibility of all, or the responsibility of no one, to ensure it is carried out.

Mainstreaming gender can also take a very tick box approach – as long as (some) women are mentioned, then ‘gender’ issues are seen to have been addressed, and it is assumed no more needs to be done. This, we contend, is the case for the Global Platform, the main global forum to assess and discuss progress on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Action (SFA).

The programme includes all the ‘right words’ around inclusion but we do not see a space at the Global Platform where the pervasive issues of gender inequality are engaged with seriously and addressed by all parties and participants. Gender inequality is the real disaster for women; the everyday violence and discrimination against women and other marginalised groups should be addressed with urgency - yet here they are confined to a small number of side events.

When we speak of gender, we do not just speak of women. We speak of everybody: people of all genders, ages, ethnicities, abilities, citizenship status, sexual orientation, … all have a gender as well as several other identities. But just focusing on the identity label ‘woman’ will not get to the root of the gendered problem.     

However, when we speak of gender inequality, we focus on the all-important power differentials - the way the privileging of some members of society and the marginalising of others is structurally embedded in societies across the planet. It is these structural inequalities that women and other marginalized groups face continuously in all life domains, that create vulnerabilities, exclusions, and lead to disasters.

This, once again, highlights that inequalities are not natural; neither is vulnerability, nor the disasters they create.

The occasional side events where gender considerations have been mainstreamed in the agenda seem to replicate the dominant discourse of women as ‘naturally’ vulnerable.  The ‘vulnerable’ label tends to be framed negatively, as referring to people that lack resources, face hardships, are located at the margins of society and generally need support and help both in the day-to-day and specifically to disaster. This ‘lack’ is then uninterrogated, which depoliticises and presents the resource landscape as a natural or unavoidable outcome of societal arrangements. Even the ‘leave no one behind’ slogan is tainted by passive notions of charity rather than the active claiming of rights. A more positive slogan would be ‘enabling  all’ or 'amplifying the voices of all’.

Gender does not equal women only, and a gender-inclusive approach does not equal a shopping list of categories of people either.

The point about adopting an intersectional approach is to make sure that any DRR policy and initiative is mindful of whose voices are heard, whose needs, experiences and interests are addressed, why and how. To conduct risk and vulnerability assessments with an intersectional approach, i.e. through the systematic collection AND analysis of gender and age data (as a start), is one way to make DRR more accountable to the people that it is supposed to protect. Yet, many remain to be convinced of its necessity and political will is often lacking.

To tackle inequalities at the root should be a priority for discussion in the negotiations on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Action. This inevitably raises political issues such as tackling barriers to equal participation, equal benefits and equal rights. All parties and participants to the Global Platform ought to be able to hold these discussions in an open and safe space where they can grapple with difficult questions and try to see the argument from all sides. These discussions should be central to the Global Platform, not siloed in negotiations on the sidelines.

Gender inequality must be at the top of the agenda, and a number of principles must be (re)affirmed:

Challenging/Deconstructing/Reconstructing Gender Mainstreaming

Intersectional gender must be visibly on the agenda to communicate the understanding that it remains a serious problem to be eliminated.  Some academics, activists and practitioners concerned with gender, disaster risk, climate change, and inequity will not attend the UNDRR Global Platform in Bali (with some actively not participating) as there is insufficient evidence that there will be meaningful outcomes.

Gender in DRR - What Is The Real Problem?

We need to have fundamental discussions about where the real problem lies and deal with the root causes of inequality, or we will continue to focus efforts on merely technical interventions to address the needs of an individually labelled social category (e.g. ‘women’). Whilst many organisations continuously focus on ‘addressing vulnerabilities’, hardly any hold the real perpetrators of vulnerabilities accountable.

Words Matter

The Words into Action slogan comes with many guidelines and practices but little consideration is given to the meanings that underpin those words. There exist many different ways and terminologies to consider what it means to be vulnerable or to be resilient to disasters. It is however unclear how the SFA captures these and builds on them so that DRR initiatives are relevant in their contexts.

What is measured matters

The measurement of progress towards DRR remains event/hazard-centric rather than being rooted in intersectional vulnerability and development (root cause/risk creation) approach. The choice to measure event impacts, rather than integrate data that would interrogate root causes, undermines the effectiveness of the Framework. It still promotes the language of development which is the language of oppression and domination for the vast majority of the world population.

Amplifying gender voice

The SFA is already largely ‘silent’ on the necessity to tackle inequality or value unpaid and underpaid care work, and so, in other words, it is silent on the real gender-related issues. The GP could be a place to showcase best practices from national governments to implement inclusive DRR on the central stage and as part of the main evaluations of progress.  Furthermore, these examples should be voiced, not by those who are already heard, but by those who are labelled under the ‘leave no one behind’ category.

Gender as a social phenomenon must be centred on the potential for, and forms of, societal agency from the grass-roots level up, as well as a critique of existing dominant, neoliberal-driven structures; if we are to ‘mainstream’ gender in our efforts for disaster risk reduction, such mainstreaming needs less invisibilising, more solidarity and amplification of everyone’s responsibility for positive action.

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