Contemporary Approaches to the Role of Gender in International Disasters and Humanitarian Crises
Only half a century ago the task of prevention and management of natural disasters and humanitarian crises was so overwhelming that the only concern of the parties involved was to save lives and to mitigate negative economic consequences (West & Orr, 2007). Humanitarian actions were neither outlined nor performed with gender issues in mind. However, now it is a commonly recognized fact that international disasters and humanitarian crises have different positive and negative impacts on women and men belonging to different age groups (Enarson, Fothergill, & Peek, 2007).
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Contemporary Treatment of Gender Roles: Basic Principles
The central idea of all the contemporary approaches to gender in disaster management and humanitarian activities is gender equality, which implies that the practical needs of men and women must be addressed with equal attention and funding (Eklund & Tellier, 2012). There exist several ways governments, social agencies, armed forces, donors, and all other participants of the disaster management can approach and promote this idea (Seager, 2006):
- performing a comprehensive analysis of gender roles in the causes and consequences of disasters;
- addressing problems of all gender and age groups;
- using chances to transform power relations in such a way that total equality can be achieved, which creates conditions for higher resilience to emergencies;
- providing support to female leaders and eliminating biases that question the significance of their role in the society;
- preventing and solving the problems connected with violence against girls and women;
- designing universal responses to gender issues that would be applied at regional, national, and global levels;
- encouraging active participation of all gender and age groups in programming at each stage of its development and implementation;
- creating and improving laws and policies concerning human rights in extreme situations with an emphasis on women’s rights for protection against violence.
All these aspects are highly important for defending the population from armed conflicts leading to life losses.
Gender-Related Vulnerability: Justifications for the New Approaches
The necessity to take all the above-mentioned measures arises mainly from the fact that mortality rates in disasters are up to 70% higher among the female part of the population. This is especially true for girls and young women living in communities with economic problems (Aoláin, 2011). It should be noted that this vulnerability starts long before a crisis emerges: women are commonly disadvantaged in their political, economic, and social status. They have limited access to resources including education. It can be aggravated by their age, ethnicity, and financial status, which means that women from marginalized communities have to cope with numerous problems and discriminations not only in case of a disaster but also in their daily routine (Thompson, 2006).
Unequal power and resource distribution between genders bring about the phenomenon of Gender-Based-Violence (GBV). Laws often fail to protect women, who run a higher risk of displacement in case of resistance. Therefore, most cases of GBV involve women and girls (however, young men and boys are also not excluded as a risk group). In emergency situations, women are forced into physical intercourse in order to get money, food, or some basic services (Felten-Biermann, 2006).
Although this inequality presents a lot of dangers and challenges, it still fosters changes in approaches to gender needs in the context of crises. It has already made a lot of governments reconsider traditional gender roles and pay closer attention to the disadvantages experienced by women in times of peace and conflict (Lautze & Raven‐Roberts, 2006).
Moreover, it has been widely recognized that the active participation of women in humanitarian actions as leaders ensures that the female part of the community will have equal access to the available resources and services (Dijkzeul, Hilhorst, & Walker, 2013). However, it is also crucial to engage men in such activities in order to promote the idea of equality and eliminate sexual violence, which increases dramatically at the time of disasters (Felten-Biermann, 2006).
Three Major Approaches
Despite the fact that there exists a great variety of contemporary approaches to the gender-sensitive disaster management and humanitarian response, only three of them are predominant (though almost inseparable in practice). These approaches are (Olivius, 2014):
- The basic needs approach. As it is evident from its name, this approach is aimed at achieving primary goals of any humanitarian aid: to save human lives and to relieve sufferings through satisfying people’s basic needs regardless of their gender. It implies that equality must be guaranteed both in quality and quantity terms. This approach is limited as it addresses only immediate needs without any insight into the future.
- The instrumentalist approach. The second approach is based on the recognition of gender differences as a factor that accounts for specific emergency perception and management. These differences are used as guidelines for developing humanitarian strategies. The approach is also concerned with the utilization of gender-specific qualities in order to enhance the effectiveness of humanitarian activities. Its main benefit is that it does not promote the image of women as victims. On the contrary, they are perceived as partners and stakeholders, who ensure the sustainability of the program.
- The developmental approach. Unlike the previous two, this approach is future-oriented. It understands gender in terms of power relations in the society. Communities that are affected by disasters and suffer from inequality and discrimination are considered to be underdeveloped. Thus, these problems can be solved only through the comprehensive transformation of such societies into modern ones, with democratic laws and value systems. The gender problem goes far beyond rendering first aid in case of an emergency. The context of disaster is perceived as an opportunity to promote social transformations. Thus, the main advantage of this approach is its holistic perception of gender equality, which is believed to influence the economic and political systems of a country as it presupposes the perfect balance of powers.
How to Prepare Yourself to Participate in an International Humanitarian Response
Although it is a very gratifying experience to take part in humanitarian missions, it still presents a number of challenges. It becomes especially evident when you become a part of a team that is assembled within a short period of time and is immediately sent to the area hit by a cataclysm. The members of the team should have basic guidelines that would make it easier for them to prepare themselves for rendering humanitarian aid (Olivia, Claudia, & Yuen, 2009).
In order to ensure the success of a humanitarian campaign, first and foremost, it is necessary to choose the right medical staff. If you prepare yourself for humanitarian aid for the first time, you should enter a good team consisting of health care providers who have already worked with emergency consequences. Experienced specialists will help cope with stressful situations and share their theoretical and practical knowledge. If the team wants to achieve the major goals of the mission, it should be diversified in terms of age, experience, and qualifications to be able to complement each other’s work (Littleton-Kearney & Slepski, 2008).
Preliminary Briefing: Essential Information
Participation in the briefing of the team members is a perfect way to make sure that you are psychologically and physiologically prepared for performing your task. This way you can get the information that is crucial for effective work in post-disaster conditions. It includes:
- geographic characteristics of the region, its climatic conditions (temperature/precipitation/atmosphere pressure (Almonte, 2009);
- political situation in the country (especially important if there are arm conflicts) (Almonte, 2009);
- linguistic peculiarities of the area (local dialects, needs for translators and interpreters, a basic glossary for communication with patients) (Chang, 2007);
- diseases common for the region (the necessity for prophylactic treatment and particular vaccinations) (Lal & Spence, 2016);
- sanitary characteristics (it is especially important to know if there is a drinking water source nearby) (Lal & Spence, 2016);
- criminal records (concerns personal security issues such as crime rates, terrorism, and safety measures that have to be taken) (Hunt, 2008);
- cultural background and religion (care providers should be especially interested in cultural aspects that concern people’s attitude to treatment as well as ethical norms: e.g. if it is accepted for a man to examine a woman, if a body can be examined post mortem or it should be buried immediately, etc.) (Chang, 2007);
- major objectives of the mission: what needs the population and authorities have and how they can be satisfied (Clark Callister & Harmer Cox, 2006);
- information about other members of the delegation (logistics staff, support team, etc.), their tasks and responsibilities (Tomasini & Van Wassenhove, 2009);
- problems that can be solved with the help of social support networks (including communication with your family or friends, which can be necessary for alleviating the stress) (Nilsson, Sjöberg, Kallenberg, & Larsson, 2011);
- organizational aspects (working, eating, and sleeping hours, food supplies, etc.); information about all the required documents (visa, ID, insurance, etc.) can also be referred to organizational issues (Almonte, 2009);
- medical capabilities in care provision (including all types of care); level of health care in the region (it can be drastically different from the one in your country, which sometimes results in the lack of opportunities for providing adequate care) (Chang, 2007);
- worksite characteristics (it is important to know whether you are going to work in the open or on the hospital premises);
- ways to cooperate with the local health care system in order to reach a compromise (Almonte, 2009);
- information about the equipment used in the region (as a specialist, you must make sure that all the tools and technologies that you need for your work are present and take with you everything that is missing) (Almonte, 2009);
- description of medical procedures accepted by the local medical system (admission, discharge, consent of the patient before treatment, tests, meetings, etc.) (Chang, 2007);
- peculiarities concerning patient records (you should know whether the information should be recorded manually or electronically, in which language, etc.) (Chang, 2007);
- guidelines for multitasking (you may be responsible for several tasks simultaneously and should be able to organize your actions properly) (Almonte, 2009).
Besides all the enumerated factors, it is also important to remember that, according to the International Disaster Preparedness Standards, as a participant of humanitarian mission you must possess special qualifications in at least one of the major spheres: health, nutrition, WASH, shelter, food provision (as well as inspection and protection), finance, security, gender issues, psychological issues, etc. (McCann & Cordi, 2011). Thus, briefing is not enough for those who do not have any of these competencies.
After you receive all the necessary information, you can start selecting and packing your personal gear. Any humanitarian organization provides some items that you may need but it is still up to you to decide what personal objects will make you comfortable. Critical elements must be packed first (McCann & Cordi, 2011).
The list of gear should include (McCann & Cordi, 2011):
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- shoes (anything suitable for the weather and worksite needs);
- toiletries (soap, sanitizers, hygienic products, towels, scissors, razors, etc.)
- sleeping items (tent, sleeping bag, linen, mattress, pillows – essential in case a shelter is not provided immediately);
- accumulators and batteries;
- cell phones, computers, tablets or any other gadgets that can provide stable communication and a possibility of data registering;
- stationary (pens, pencils, paper, notebooks, etc. – in case there is no electricity and the use of gadgets for recording is impossible);
- personal medical equipment.
Packing your gear is a mandatory part of the preparation process. In extreme situations, the absence of some of the elements may cost you your life.
The humanitarian and emergency management is a multi-faceted and complexly organized process. A lot of vital aspects of it must be considered before addressing each particular case. The quality of the preparation for the mission (which takes into account both the needs of the population and those of the health care providers participating in humanitarian missions) tells directly on the ultimate success of the operation.
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