Early warning is integral to disaster preparedness, which is central to building the resilience of households and communities to disaster. Effective early warning systems (EWS) are people centred, ensuring appropriate, applicable, and timely early warning reaches the last mile, including the most vulnerable.
Gender is a critical consideration in ensuring effective EWS leave no one behind. However, limited research has focused specifically on the connection between gender and EWS, and there is a shortage of evidence on best practices to ensure EWS are effective for all.
EWS and gender
Early warning systems that do not explicitly consider gender are gender unaware. A gender unaware approach, in a context with gender inequality, will likely be gender unequal, increasing the marginalization and vulnerability of groups who have less power and influence.
An EWS that is gender aware recognizes that different genders (including gender minorities) are impacted differently or have different needs, but makes only minor adjustments to address this (adapted from Dwyer and Woolf, 2018). A gender sensitive EWS ensures disaster preparedness, response and contingency planning, and proactively considers gender, making some adaptations to respond to the specific needs, concerns, and capabilities of marginalized gender groups. A gender transformative EWS proactively (re)designs approaches, policies, and practices to reduce gender-based inequalities and to meet the needs of all people.
Data was collected from three regions in Nepal and two regions in Peru, focusing on areas where a flood early warning system is already operational. Additional interviews were conducted with marginalized women including those who are elderly, those with disabilities, single mothers, transgender women, women who were pregnant or with young babies, those with young children, and women with visual impairments.
Gender inequality and social marginalization increases vulnerability to disasters. The less economic, political, and cultural power women and gender minorities have before an event, the greater their suffering during and in the aftermath. Gender norms (e.g. men being viewed as decision-makers), gender roles, and gender-based violence can increase the vulnerability of women and gender minorities during a disaster. Efforts to consider gender need to be intersectional – lack of political rights, low social capital, ethnicity, age, health, disability, gender, gender identity, and sexuality influence vulnerability and capacity to respond to early warning.
Marginalized gender groups risk being excluded from disaster risk reduction (DRR) policies, strategies, and decision-making as DRR processes are not currently designed to enable them to engage.
Marginalized gender groups participate less in EWS initiatives because of their domestic roles, lack of autonomy, mobility challenges, social isolation and persecution, and gendered assumptions (e.g. that men represent a household). Marginalized gender groups demonstrate high levels of interest in participation in DRR and EWS initiatives but feel their voices do not matter or are not welcome. Proactive efforts are needed to include the needs, priorities, and capabilities of marginalized gender groups, and magnify their voices at every stage of the EWS.
Gender inequality in economic capital, access to technology, and social capital have an impact on access to early warning. Gender inequality in education and literacy levels affects the capacity to receive, understand, and act upon early warning. People of different genders may have different levels of access to formal and informal dissemination channels, have different communication preferences (shaped by gender norms), and face different challenges in accessing and being able to act upon early warning.
Groups with higher vulnerability have different preferences and capacities to prepare and respond, including a preference for earlier evacuation. Response plans may not be designed according to the needs, capabilities, and preferences of vulnerable groups. Women and men traditionally have distinct roles in response, though changing mobility patterns mean women increasingly need to cover a wider range of roles. Disasters exacerbate discrimination faced by marginalized gender groups. Gendered cultural norms, social marginalization, and gender-based violence reduce security in responding to disasters and affect the decision-making of marginalized gender groups, disincentivizing evacuation.
Vulnerable groups are at a higher risk of sexual harassment and assault during and after a disaster.
DRR and EWS initiatives take place in locations where some groups have less power than others, where, in some cases, individuals or groups are deliberately marginalized. Participation in EWS initiatives does not equate to influence or power over decision-making. Groups with less power (often including women and gender minorities) lack control over decision-making in disaster situations, with social norms prioritizing male leadership. Lack of power and influence over decisionmaking increases gendered vulnerability to disasters. Representation in DRR and EWS initiatives matters: there is a need for transformational change and empowerment of marginalized gender groups in all elements of EWS.
Recommendations for a gender transformative approach to early warning
The first necessary step is acknowledgement that gender is a critical consideration, including consideration of the likely impacts of gender norms, gender stereotypes, and cisnormative assumptions, with repercussions that marginalize women and gender minorities.
Gender analysis is another critical component to understanding gender inequality in a given context and the ways in which gender norms, gender roles, and gendered power structures shape the families, communities, and institutions in a given location. At this point it is important to examine and question gendered assumptions (including stereotypes and cisnormativity) informing the analysis.
Proactive effort is needed to reach out to, partner with, and listen to the voices of marginalized gender groups, with careful consideration of which voices are missing. In this research project we heard from marginalized women including those who are elderly, those with disabilities, single mothers, transgender women, those who are pregnant or with young babies, those with young children, and women with visual impairments. Consideration of other marginalized gender groups is also needed, including other gender minorities (including but not limited to trans men, third gender people, non-binary people) and sexual minorities (e.g. lesbian and bisexual women).
In the context of an EWS, it is important to explicitly consider gendered impacts on vulnerability, participation, dissemination, response, and power and decision-making.
Women and gender minorities are not all equally and uniformly vulnerable, and therefore an inclusive and intersectional perspective is critical, understanding and considering how multiple intersecting marginalized identities of vulnerabilities can increase vulnerability. For example, a widow living with a disability from a minority ethnic group may have higher vulnerability than an individual facing only one area of marginalization. It is important in an intersectional approach to acknowledge the interaction of gender with other socially excluding factors including disability, socio-economic status, gender identity, marital status, and sexual orientation.
An important achievement is moving to a gender aware EWS, where there is explicit consideration and understanding of the specific ways in which gender affects a particular EWS (in a particular context), and any differential impacts of the EWS on different gender groups.
A next step can be moving to a gender sensitive approach, with some adaptations to activities to mitigate the negative impact on marginalized gender groups.
A more ambitious EWS is gender transformative, aiming for an improvement over the status quo so that people of all genders can access, understand, and respond to effective early warning. Gender transformative approaches to early warning must respond effectively to the nuances of different gendered experiences, vulnerabilities, and capacities, recognizing that marginalized groups are heterogeneous and consist of diverse populations with varying degrees of power.