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Why we need women leaders

  • Published at 06:04 pm December 9th, 2016
Why we need women leaders

Imagine you are a woman named Mahreen. You live in a crowded, informal settlement with limited security and privacy, and flooding of your home has become a normal event due to increased rainfall and poor drainage.

You are lucky to find work in a garment factory, but the conditions and pay are inadequate, and you have no labour rights. You would like to take a loan from a financial institution to start a sewing business that will allow you to move out of this settlement, but you cannot access the loan simply because you are a woman.

You are excluded from making decisions at the community level regarding climate change adaptation, and are certainly not encouraged to lead. You must respect society’s prescribed gender expectations.

This is a fictional story, but serves to highlight some of the unique challenges women face in adapting to climate change.

Women are often seen as victims of climate change related disasters. The current narrative suggests that due to their fragile position in society, women will be in need of help if they are to adapt to the unique challenges of climate change.

This prevailing view is flawed. While women are vulnerable, they also have immense capacity and capability to not only help themselves, but help their communities during times of disaster. When women become leaders of change in their communities, the benefits are shared by all and gender roles are often transformed.

In late 2014, ActionAid, in partnership with The Economist Intelligence Unit, developed the South Asia Women’s Resilience Index (WRI). This index assesses the capacity of countries in South Asia to withstand and recover from disasters, particularly looking at the level at which women participate in national resilience building efforts.

The WRI recognises that women are often given inadequate attention by government in national level policy despite having their greater vulnerability and capacity to lead resilience-building efforts acknowledged in international forums.

Countries in South Asia performed quite similarly overall, with Bangladesh ranking sixth out of the seven countries. However, with all countries achieving scores below 50 out of 100, it is clear that for any country to claim they are adequately addressing women’s resilience -- they will need to improve their score significantly.

While women are vulnerable, they also have immense capacity and capability to not only help themselves, but help their communities during times of disaster

The WRI advocates for policy-makers to create a more supportive environment for women, with fewer barriers limiting their potential. Empowering women at the community level is essential and can be achieved by boosting women’s “bargaining power” in the community through recognition and access to their rights, and increasing their role in decision making and planning. The greatest change in women’s ability to withstand natural disasters occurs when they are leaders within their communities; therefore this should be promoted at every opportunity. Women leaders create cohesion and fairness in adaptation efforts, and also begin to shift broader gender relations for the longer-term benefit of women and their resilience.

The WRI recognises there have been implementation challenges within countries and across the region, with a lack of attention to women’s rights in planning documents, such as national adaptation plans. This is made even worse by the planning authorities inability to ensure the inclusion and active participation of women in decision-making bodies. Simply consulting women is not sufficient for effective planning and policy to address climate change.

Beyond the top-level scores, there are differences between countries that highlight national-level weaknesses as well as best practices that can inform policy making within and between countries. In Bangladesh, the WRI recognises that in recent times the country’s response to natural disasters has improved significantly, with a focus on disaster risk reduction at all levels of government ensuring people are better prepared to respond when a disaster strikes.

However, it is apparent from the WRI that greater emphasis needs to be placed on gender equality across a range of economic and socio-cultural areas, including labour rights, women’s access to finance, education and health. This will ensure women are in a position to exercise their rights and demand better outcomes that safeguard them against climate change impacts.

Empowering women economically through access to finance, both formal and informal, has been limited due to requirements for collateral and loan applications requiring signatures from a male head of household. Similarly, labour conditions for women do not always conform to decent work standards, as evidenced by the textile industry, nor are there adequate social safety nets such as gender-sensitive old-age allowance or unemployment benefits for women to support them outside of the workforce.

Socially, women are limited from fully participating in society through cultural restrictions that minimise women’s access to education and health, confining them to domestic responsibilities. When a disaster strikes, many homes do not meet building code requirements regulations and women are forced to flee to evacuation shelters for safety.

However, the conditions in these shelters are often far from safe or dignified, and women are faced with both privacy and security concerns that include the risk of increased domestic and external violence against women.

ActionAid has been pioneering the implementation of women-led emergency response in Bangladesh since Cyclone Mahasen in 2013. Through our work, women have increased their knowledge and awareness of climate change, and developed skills in conducting community post-disaster needs assessments as well as procuring and distributing relief items. Consequently, women were more effectively able to support the most vulnerable groups within their community, including children, widows, people with disabilities, and the elderly. Demonstrating their effectiveness in this role, women increased their influence in the community: They were recognised by the government and the community as capable and valuable participants in climate change and disaster planning initiatives at the community level.

ActionAid continues to promote the importance of women’s leadership in building urban resilience for women like Mahreen and calls on governments and other stakeholders to also prioritize women in their efforts to support climate change adaptation.

Melissa Bungcaras is the Gender and Resilience Advisor for ActionAid Australia.

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