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The UN’s ‘pre-zero draft’ of the post-2015 framework for disaster-risk reduction calls for a marriage of science and community-level expertise. The final framework will set out what various sectors can do to reduce risks from catastrophes after the current framework expires in 2015. According to the draft, scientific and technical capacity will be useful for managing disaster data and assessing peoples’ vulnerability to hazards related to climate, geology and water, while the leadership, capacities and resources of local communities are considered essential for disaster risk reduction. [1]

What is missing from the draft is recognition of the significant differences in how male and female victims experience disasters.

“The UN draft’s failure to consider the varying ways that men and women experience the fallout from disasters is surprising given the volume of evidence and analysis that exists about this, including material generated by UN agencies themselves.”

Henrietta Miers

Take the Ebola virus. Women, as primary caregivers, face an increased risk of contracting the disease, so it is unsurprising that an estimated three-quarters of Liberians who have contracted the virus are female. In Sierra Leone, women and girls account for 59 per cent of Ebola fatalities, according to UN figures. [2]

Or take the tsunami that swept through Asia in 2004, where far more women died than men. Research by Oxfam International found that in one Indonesian village 80 per cent of fatalities were female. Women were less able to swim, climb trees or seek higher ground, and often risked their lives saving children or other vulnerable relatives. [3]
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The cyclone and floods that wreaked havoc in Bangladesh in 1991 killed five times more women than men. Information was passed between men in public spaces, while women, confined to their homes due to social norms, died waiting to be taken somewhere safe. [4] I’ve read one account that described how a survivor heard the cyclone warning but stayed at home in fear of being blamed for leaving the property unattended.

The UN draft’s failure to consider the varying ways that men and women experience the fallout from disasters is surprising given the volume of evidence and analysis that exists about this, including material generated by UN agencies themselves.

Only last year, the UN Development Programme published a report on the issue. [5] This includes a list of recommendations, some of which, such as including gender perspectives in disaster reduction efforts, admittedly are bland and generic. But there are more meaningful ones, for example analysing climate change data from a gender perspective, considering women’s traditional knowledge when analysing and evaluating disaster risks, and promoting women as participants in activities related to preparedness at all levels — including early warning systems, education, communication, information and networking.

With the wealth of material and evidence on gender and disaster that exists, the UN has no excuse to ignore it in subsequent drafts of the framework.

Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 20 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting economic opportunities for poor women.


[1] Pre-zero draft of the Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, accessed 30 September 2014)
[2] Ebola outbreak takes its toll on women (UN Women, 2 September 2014)
[3] Oxfam Briefing Note: The tsunami’s impact on women (Oxfam International, March 2005)
[4] Livelihoods and adaptive capacity in Bangladesh (Tiempo, April 2006)
[5] Gender and disaster risk reduction (UN Development Programme, 2013)