Gender and Development talks resilience

Disasters, Food & livelihoods, Gender, Gender & Development Journal, Humanitarian

How are men and women affected differently by shocks and stresses, and how can a women’s rights approach be applied? Caroline Sweetman, Editor of the Gender & Development journal, introduces the resilience issue.

‘Keep calm and carry on’, a motto from the days of the Blitz in World War II, is currently having a revival, emblazoned across mugs and tea-towels. But resilience isn’t just about celebrating stoicism. It’s about supporting people’s activism to overcome the injustices and inequalities which shape vulnerability to extreme weather, land degradation, famines, and other apparently ‘natural’ events. 

In the past two decades, there has been growing awareness among humanitarian and development policymakers and practitioners of the urgent need to evolve responses to crises in order to build resilience. That is, to support people to become less vulnerable to sudden shocks and stresses, so that they no longer live in fear for their homes and lives.

Between 2001 and 2010, recorded disasters alone affected around 232 million people each year, in addition to killing a further 106 million, and causing an estimated US$108 billion in economic damages. The causes are complex and many, including extreme weather events like flooding and droughts, longer-term land degradation, large-scale development which sweeps away traditional livelihoods, conflicts, and a myriad of other economic,
political and social changes, which are (literally) spelling disaster for people around the globe. Resilience in the face of such calamity can take the form of stoicism – the ability to keep going when the going gets tough – but that is just the start. What is required is much more: the activism, optimism and energy to overcome adversity and get through to the other side, not only bouncing back, but bouncing back better

What does bouncing back better mean, from a gender perspective? As this issue of Gender & Development shows, women are, perhaps rather schizophrenically, seen as both vulnerable victims of disasters, and as valiant protectors of the family and nature, who hold back the floodwaters and ensure family survival through seemingly endless reserves of energy and invention. Women are not victims in need of protection; they are powerful agents and advocates who enable families and
communities to survive. Vulnerability cannot be assumed, where it exists any special vulnerability is the outcome of structural inequalities, which constrain women’s activism and expertise. Women are not victims in need of protection, they are powerful agents

In their article, Julie Drolet and colleagues involved in a research consortium Rebuilding Lives Post-Disaster: Innovative Community Practices for Sustainable Development explore women’s responses to disasters in Pakistan and the USA, highlighting how women contribute to building resilience and promoting sustainable development in poor communities in the wake of disasters. Despite marginalisation from decision-making (from household to boardroom to government), women not only keep calm
and carry on, but take on the powerful, to challenge the root causes of vulnerability. 

Katy Jenkins and Glevys Rondon’s article on Andean women’s resistance to large-scale mining operations shows both the stoicism and the active resilience of women’s groups, fighting changes which will devastate their livelihoods and communities. 

As Daniel Morchain and fellow writers show in their article, good development work on resilience starts with participatory research with communities into vulnerability and resilience which aims to support gender equality and women’s rights, by involving women from the start of planning, as active leaders and participants. Women should not be seen as victims of natural disasters, but admired for their struggles against sexism and other forms of inequality, and their role in boosting resilience.
There’s a role for development and humanitarian workers to support that struggle.

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Photo:  Hazna, 38 years old, stands in a makeshift camp along the road in the district Mirpur Khas district, Sindh, Pakistan on November 3, 2011. Credit: Sam Phelps/Oxfam

Author: Caroline Sweetman
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.