Empowering women for disaster risk reduction in Myanmar

[Individual articles from the Summer 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Rakhine, the second poorest state in Myanmar, is frequently exposed to natural hazards, including cyclones, flooding, landslides, earthquakes, droughts, tsunamis and fires in forested and rural areas. Climate change models predict that Myanmar over the coming years and decades will experience increased temperatures, more frequent and intense drought periods, changing rainfall patterns and an increased risk of flooding, as well as more frequent and intense extreme weather events resulting in storm and flood surges and sea-level rise that will affect almost all communities across the country. Communities in Rakhine are already facing a variety of these impacts. Rakhine is also at risk of complex disasters exacerbated by natural hazards: a combination of food shortages, fragile or failing economic, political, and social institutions and internal conflict that leads to displacement of people. Rakhine suffers from a long-standing political and military conflict between the central government, the Myanmar Army and Buddhist nationalists, on the one hand, and the Arakan Army and the Rohingya Muslim community, on the other. Additionally, the Rakhine/Arakan Army has conflicts with other indigenous groups in Rakhine (the national government recognizes 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar): fighting has repeatedly displaced people from their homes and villages, thereby increasing their vulnerability. A lack of resources and education, coupled with these complex social relationships in a multi-layered, multi-religious and ethnic group state, add to the vulnerability of the people in Rakhine.

Women in Rakhine are disproportionately vulnerable to complex disasters, natural hazards and climate change impacts due to cultural beliefs, traditional practices and socio-economic conditions. Women are more likely than men to experience increased loss of livelihoods and gender-based violence. In some situations, they have experienced greater loss of life during and after a disaster. Women for the World (WFW), a Yangon-based Myanmar non-governmental organization (NGO), partners with the Indigenous Women’s Coalition for Peace (IWCP) in Rakhine to reduce risk and increase resilience. They believe that gender and indigenous identity are critical elements for addressing climate change impacts and disaster risk. The integration of Rakhine indigenous women’s local knowledge and their practices in disaster mitigation, preparation and response efforts are essential for reducing risk and increasing resilience.

WFW and IWCP work with diverse women’s savings groups to increase understanding of the impacts of climate change, assess their local knowledge and increase their capacity to prepare for and respond to disaster events. WFW’s primary belief is that while women are the most vulnerable members of the community, they are also the agents for change. In Rakhine, a lack of employment opportunities has resulted in the migration of men and young women to find work outside of their villages, leaving women, the elderly and children to deal with the aftermath of natural hazards. Women are the caregivers for children, the sick and the elderly; they are often the sole breadwinners, as men, older boys and girls leave to seek job opportunities in urban centers or across borders; they are responsible for securing food; they are informal healthcare providers; they are responsible for the safekeeping of livestock; and they are responsible for finding and maintaining fresh drinking water supplies. Women are more restricted in travel and are more likely to be restricted from owning land, from borrowing or investing money, and from diversifying livelihoods through starting a new business.

Conversely, women are also holders of essential cultural, historical and economic knowledge within their communities, making them vital participants in efforts to decrease disaster risk. Women manage environmental resources to sustain their households and act as informal healthcare providers. They have survival and coping skills to respond to disasters, have local community networks and possess local knowledge of the community, including the location and needs of the most vulnerable (the elderly, children, persons with disabilities) during a crisis, making them critical players in disaster risk reduction (DRR).

WFW and the IWCP gather women to build peace and resilience together through a women’s savings group model. In addition to training on group formation and savings management, group members also receive training about women’s rights, conflict transformation, domestic violence and DRR. They are taught to conduct village mapping to assess the vulnerabilities in their villages, from infrastructure mapping to household and community population mapping. Representatives from each group, representing different ethnicities, meet together to receive in-depth conflict transformation and disaster management trainings which they take back to their groups. Members of the IWCP continue working with the savings groups, supporting them as they learn and plan.

WFW operates from the assumption that women cannot begin adapting to climate change if they do not believe they can. To strengthen self-reliance, WFW employs a participatory learning process. WFW trainers first raise awareness among women’s groups in an atmosphere of openness to women’s stories and experiences in disasters as a method of learning and naming what the women already know. For example, women already know that shelter for women and children is vulnerable to natural hazards and that the safest cyclone resistant shelter does not provide privacy to women and children. They know that rains are increasing and temperatures are rising, leading to greater malaria incidences and the need for more mosquito nets. After WFW staff have introduced the process of village mapping, they step back (to their Yangon office) while the savings groups create village maps that identify geographic strengths and weaknesses, households (including the number of family members in each household) and the most vulnerable persons and where they live (the elderly, young children, persons with disabilities). The women also mark the location of their livestock, schools, fishing boats and other community and household assets.

In WFW trainings, group members learn skills for assessing risks and vulnerability and for identifying sustainable adaptation solutions for their communities. Savings group members report that the support they receive through the group makes them less vulnerable. Through the savings group, women can access loans to start small businesses, diversifying their bases of income. One group trained by WFW is building a safe and hygienic latrine to decrease the risk of disease. Other groups are advocating for improved early warning systems in indigenous languages, especially related to weather forecast news, and for more detailed information regarding the nature of hazards so communities can be better prepared to respond. WFW-trained groups have publicly identified cyclone resistant buildings in every village that can adequately serve as secure shelters. In the event of a natural hazard, the women are prepared to secure livestock in a safe place where they can be maintained until the risk has abated and to store food and water in a secure space. After flooding, women rebuild their homes to be more flood resistant, drawing upon loans through their savings group. Recognizing the need to improve rice growing practices to decrease vulnerability to climate change, groups have strengthened their relationships with the government’s agricultural department to secure technical assistance. One group has already seen increased yields after using a savings group loan to lease a training plot and accessing technical support from the government agricultural department. Empowered by the social and organizational support from savings groups, women have formed DRR management teams in their villages tasked with providing accessible information about potential risks and developing record-keeping practices to help assess potential disaster situations and track changes to facilitate ongoing adaptability.

The role of vulnerable people in risk reduction measures should not be underestimated. When women become involved in addressing their vulnerabilities, they are encouraged and empowered to continue making improvements in their communities. If women’s roles and local knowledge are not included in disaster planning and response, disaster risk reduction interventions will be ineffective in reducing risk. Women are vital and powerful agents of change: it is imperative that they are participants in disaster planning, preparation and response. When WFW, the IWCP and diverse women’s savings groups in Rakhine join together to assess local knowledge and integrate this knowledge into DRR planning and action, they reduce the risks posed by natural and complex disasters and empower women to create a more peaceful, resilient and adaptive society.

Sandra Reisinger is MCC representative for Myanmar, based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Van Lizar is director of Women for the World (WFW), an MCC partner organization in Myanmar.

Learn more

Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation. Myanmar Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (MCCSAP) 2016–2030. (July 2016). Available at http://myanmarccalliance.org/mcca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/MCCA-Strategy_ActionPlan_11July2016V1.pdf.

Enarson, E. Working with Women at Risk: Practical Guidelines for Assessing Local Disaster Risk. (April 2002). Available at http://reliefweb.int/report/world/working-women-risk-practical-guidelines-assessing-local-disaster-risk.

Mitchel, T., Tanner, T., and Lussier, K. We Know What We Need: South Asian Women Speak Out on Climate Change Adaptation. Action Aid. (November 2007). Available at http://www.actionaid.org/publications/we-know-what-we-need-south-asian-women-speak-out-climate-change-adaptation.

UNISDR. Making Disaster Risk Reduction Gender-Sensitive: Policy and Practical Guidelines. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations, 2009. Available at http://www.unisdr.org/files/9922_MakingDisasterRiskReductionGenderSe.pdf.

UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. Mobilizing Women’s Leadership in Disaster Risk Reduction: High Level Multi-Stakeholder Partnership Dialogue. (March 2015). Available at http://www.wcdrr.org/uploads/Mobilizing-Women%E2%80%99s-Leadership-in-Disaster-Risk-Reduction.pdf.

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