Women’s leadership in preparedness – why does it matter?

Project: Learning Project 6th March 2018

Women bring a wealth of knowledge and resources to emergency preparedness, yet women’s existing capacities as leaders are often not sufficiently recognised. International frameworks emphasise the importance of women’s leadership as a requirement for effective humanitarian action – both on the frontline and in designing preparedness programmes – but women remain underrepresented in decision-making roles.

The Research People and the Learning Project of the Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) have conducted research on Women’s Leadership in Preparedness, drawing on the experiences of stakeholders involved in the DEPP and its networks in Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan and the Philippines. So, what did we find?

How are women leading in preparedness?

Women are well-represented in community and grassroots decision-making bodies, such as village committees, disaster risk management committees, and county coordination mechanisms. Women’s representation in national level structures is limited, or confined to departments that hold a mandate for promoting gender equality. The exception is the Philippines, where women are well-represented in leadership roles at senior levels.

At the grassroots level, women have a greater opportunity to participate in preparedness decisions such as on building shelters, in economic savings groups, and search and rescue efforts in disasters. We’ve also seen this theme emerge in previous research on this topic.

Initiatives to increase women’s engagement and leadership within the DEPP have included running targeted leadership training for women, building organisational and staff capacity of women-led NGOs, and enlisting the help of gender advisors in designing gender-sensitive activities.

Why does women’s leadership in preparedness matter?

Women’s right to equal participation in decision-making is enshrined in international legal frameworks, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. We also know that women have specific needs in disasters (around sanitation, protection etc.), and including women in leading and facilitating needs- and vulnerability-assessments can help make these visible – particularly in contexts where women may feel uncomfortable raising their concerns with men.

However, we must also pay attention to other factors that affect women’s experiences – gender is just one. Understanding that women’s experiences differ in different contexts, and are affected by social, cultural and economic factors, is essential to ensuring activities meet women’s specific needs.

Given their traditional roles as caregivers in disaster-affected communities, involving women in preparedness decisions can help ensure the needs of vulnerable groups are catered for. Interviewees described examples of women facilitating nutrition interventions for pregnant women, children, and the elderly; taking the lead in building community shelters, and influencing governments to improve evacuation centres to meet needs of vulnerable groups.

Women in communities often hold local knowledge that is crucial to preparedness, including community resilience strategies against drought or other natural hazards. Women also boast strong social networks through which they can disseminate early warning information, or distribute food aid, as was the case in the Pakistan floods.

What are the barriers and enablers of women’s leadership?

The research highlighted fairly consistent barriers to women’s leadership across the four countries, however, these inevitably differ slightly according to cultural, economic and social contexts of the woman in question.

The biggest barrier was cultural norms, which may result in humanitarian work being seen as a job for men rather than women – particularly in roles that demand extensive travelling and working in remote, high-risk areas. Moreover, women who do take up such roles often have to balance work and family commitments, and sometimes feel a conflict in choosing between them.

Women working for local and national organisations felt there was a lack of opportunities for women to build their leadership skills, and when INGOs offered training courses, these didn’t always meet women’s needs. Related to this is the fact that applicants to senior management roles are expected to have extensive experience and qualifications, but women might perceive they are not qualified enough, or might not have the confidence to apply.

But it’s not all negative, and the research highlighted some strategies to promote women’s leadership. Policies that promote women’s participation in decision-making bodies (both at the organisational and community level) are vital. Women in the Philippines and Ethiopia highlighted the importance of networks in which they could share and learn from other women. However, what’s most important is actively creating opportunities for women to exercise their decision-making power and build their leadership skills – learning through doing!

Interestingly, barriers can also be enablers – at the grassroots level, the cultural expectations surrounding women’s roles (e.g. as caregivers and nurturers) enabled them to gain trust from their communities and take the lead in facilitating resilience-building efforts.

So, what’s next? A lot of this raises more questions than answers. Join us on 14-15 March at the ‘Preparing for Shock: Is Preparedness the New Frontier?’  conference in Geneva where we’ll be taking this discussion further and sharing best practice for recognising and cultivating women’s leadership, as well as exploring opportunities to strengthen engagement for this issue at global and regional levels.

For more information about the conference visit our events page here


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