ECC Platform Library


Build back better: disaster management as an opportunity for gender equality?

24 August, 2016
Katharina Nett

Women are at the forefront of climate change, facing disproportionately high risks to their health, education, food security and livelihoods. The gendered impacts of climate change are particularly strong in the case of climate-induced disasters and are exacerbated in contexts of violent conflict, fragility and extreme poverty. At the same time, women can be important agents of change in adaptation and peacebuilding. Disaster management can provide opportunities to overcome traditional gender roles and strengthen women’s voices in decision-making.

Why gender matters in times of disasters

While disasters strike a population as a whole, they can be particularly hard on women and children, who are up to 14 times more likely to die during natural hazards than men. But why does gender make such a difference? Vulnerability to natural hazards is not an external independent variable but greatly depends on coping capacity. It is socially constructed and largely determined by political and socio-economic conditions.

If we understand gender as the social roles and economic opportunities attributed to women and men, it can significantly shape the ability of individuals to cope with or recover from disasters. In many societies, social norms, roles and power dynamics related to gender increase women’s vulnerabilities to disasters, as they have lower levels of education and skills, less access to resources and lower levels of mobility. However, examples like Hurricane Mitch in 1998 show that men can also suffer from gendered impacts: due to gender norms and ideas of masculinity, men put themselves at greater risk during the weather event, with the result that more men than women died during the hurricane.

Preparing for and recovering from disasters

Women in the global south also have limited access to financial and material resources, education and knowledge to prepare for and recover from climate-induced disasters. In India, for example, women often have less access to critical climate data and information on weather alerts than men. Where women’s mobility is impeded by social norms, expecting them to stay around the house, or by dress codes that hamper their ability to move quickly, their chances to survive a disaster substantially decrease. Poverty, social restrictions and power structures, roles in decision-making, and lack of life skills such as swimming or climbing trees explain why in the 2004 Asian tsunami, more than 70 percent of the casualties were women.

Women who are excluded from knowledge of coping strategies, employment and legal assets such as property find it much harder to recover from weather-related shocks. As women are traditionally responsible for household wellbeing, they have to work harder when food and water become scarcer after disasters at the cost of other income-generating activities or education. These constraints limit their ability to cope with disasters and exacerbate existing gender-based inequalities and discrimination.

Disasters and gender-based violence

Human trafficking of women and children has always been a problem in India’s West Bengal. But when destruction and flooding from cyclone Aila displaced more than one million people in the Sundarbans in 2009, the rate of human trafficking skyrocketed. According to a report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the number of missing women in West Bengal has increased 33-fold from 2001 to 2010. The state of West Bengal is at high risk from multiple hazards such as flooding, cyclones, drought, landslides or soil erosion – and climate change is expected to increase their frequency and intensity.

Disasters are increasingly being related with gender-based violence, as the case of India and Bangladesh illustrates. In the aftermath of disasters, patterns of discrimination can be aggravated and women often face protection risks including inequitable access to relief aid, lack of security in emergency accommodations, violence and human trafficking. 70 to 80 percent of individuals exposed to international trafficking are female, half of which are girls. According to a report by the UN Environment Program, human trafficking increases by 20 to 30 percent in times of disasters, for two main reasons:

First, disasters increase livelihood insecurity and are hardest on poor people with fewer resources to recover, the majority of which are women. After cyclone Aila, per capita income in coastal communities in Bangladesh dropped by one third, and the poverty rate increased from 41 to 63 percent within two years. This makes women with little education and few economic opportunities more vulnerable to be lured by false promises of education, employment, or safety, ultimately being trapped in exploitation, prostitution or forced labor.

Second, disasters create chaotic conditions in which local safety nets and protective patterns are disrupted and social control and family support structures are eroded. Displacement and loss of homes and possessions put women and children at great risk of exploitation, abduction, slavery, prostitution, and gender-based violence. When disasters overburden already fragile state institutions, protection mechanisms and law enforcement are further eroded.

The potential of gender-sensitive disaster management

Women are often reduced to their role as victims of disasters and climate change, and only 17 percent of all national adaptation programmes of action (NAPAs) adopt a gender perspective. Many policies that include gender focus on disaster response rather than prevention and management. While recognizing their vulnerabilities is necessary, the great potential of women as agents of change in adaptation should not be overlooked. Traditionally, women are major actors in many areas that are related to disaster prevention and management, with significant responsibilities “for managing critical productive resources such as land, water, livestock, biodiversity, fodder, fuel, and food”, as a UNEP report notes. However, analysis by UNISDR has shown that 62 out of 70 countries failed to collect gender-disaggregated data on disaster vulnerability and capacity in implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action to reduce disaster risk  an important instrument for creating an enabling environment for women to participate and shape decisions.

If policies fail to include women and their needs they risk reinforcing traditional patriarchal structures of society and marginalizing women even further. Conversely, by including women’s voices as well as their experiences and leadership in disaster and climate risk management, disaster recovery can present unique opportunities to change traditional gender roles. While they may not have formal leadership positions, women can play a vital role in strengthening the social fabric in the aftermath of a disaster, thereby supporting both equitable and peaceful disaster recovery. To harness their potential in rebuilding resilience and their leadership in civil society, women must be involved in all stages of decision making, programs and policies.

Applying a gender-sensitive approach, disasters can, in fact, increase women’s participation in formal processes of DRR and help to build back better. Gender-sensitive post-disaster recovery may increase security and livelihood opportunities for women, change power dynamics by empowering women to assume new responsibilities and improve their access to assets. This reduces vulnerability to exploitation and gender-based violence. This is not to say that disasters are silver linings for women, but rather to argue that instead of responses that exacerbate gender inequalities, disasters can be seen as starting points for empowerment.

Making the Sendai Framework gender-sensitive

With the recognition of gender equality in its preamble, the Paris Agreement is a first step in this direction. The statement that “capacity-building should be […a] process that is […] gender-responsive” now needs to be translated into action to strengthen disaster resilience of both women and men. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction already recognizes the importance of including gender dimensions in disaster management, stating that “women and their participation are critical to effectively managing disaster risk […]; and adequate capacity building measures need to be taken to empower women for preparedness as well as build their capacity for alternate livelihood means in post-disaster situations”.

Moving forward on this commitment, policy makers need to promote the potential of women’s leadership in DRR throughout all four priorities of action of the Sendai framework: (1) understanding disaster risk, particularly through context-specific gender analysis and collection of gender-disaggregated data; (2) strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risks, by including the voices and ensuring participation of women from local communities; (3) investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience, ensuring gender-responsive budgeting and (4) enhancing disaster preparedness for effective responses, recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

BlogA New Climate for Peace





Tags capacity building climate change disaster disaster risk reduction gender poverty Sendai


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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