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Information is power: Women need equal access to ICTs for disaster resilience

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Are women more vulnerable to the effects of disasters than men?

On the surface, the damage wrought by disasters may not seem to discriminate based on gender, but sobering data suggest otherwise.

When a 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook Hindu Kush, Afghanistan on 26 October 2015, 70% of the victims were women and girls.

During the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, 91% of the fatalities were women.

Cyclone Nargis barrelled through Myanmar in 2008; 61% of deaths were female.

Women and children are 14 times more likely to die during a disaster, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The examples are plentiful.

The reason for the gendered impact of disasters is simple: information equals power[iv], and women’s lack of access to information is what makes them more vulnerable to disasters than men.

During and after a disaster, information equals power multiplied several times over. Those who have access to early warnings are more likely to be prepared for the onslaught of a natural hazard – it’s called “adaptive capacity.”[v]

Gender-based vulnerability, magnified by disaster

Disasters are perceived as events with specific timestamps. Often ignored are the existing social norms that mean humanitarians are challenged to support men and women differently over the long period following a crisis.

Disasters magnify the gendered social norms of non-disaster periods. In other words, power imbalances in societies around the world are heightened for women and girls during periods of crisis. Women are often the ones who stay at the site of a crisis, looking after children and the elderly, rebuilding communities from what has been lost in the fire, flood, cyclone or drought - these are the traditional gendered divisions of labour in many high-risk countries.

A woman’s socioeconomic status – which is partly defined by her ability to access information – has a direct impact on her risk of being killed during a disaster.

This concept is called “gendered disaster vulnerability”, where the impact of disasters on the lives of women and girls is greater than it is for men and boys because of unequal access to information and economic resources, compounded by unequal personal freedoms.

Gendered disaster vulnerability is part of a vicious cycle where the lack of access to information strips individuals of “the information or knowledge to act or think differently”.[vii] For example, if social gender norms prevent a woman from learning to swim or climb trees, she is more likely to drown during a tsunami. Partly for this reason – and for the social expectation that women remain at home as caregivers to children and the elderly – four times as many women as men were killed in areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.[viii]

Digital divide or digital canyon?

The “digital divide” is the gap between those who have access to ICTs and those who do not. Digital divides exist between developed and developing countries, urban vs rural communities, young vs old. In many places around the world, the gap for women and girls is more of a canyon known as the “gendered digital divide”.

We live in a digital society where information is defined as a “primary good”[ix]. Those without access to information and communications technology (ICT) can therefore find themselves in a state of information and knowledge poverty.

The social constructs around gender even have an influence on the types of ICT skills men and women cultivate which, in turn, impact on their respective power in the digital information society. This disparity doesn’t occur in a vacuum, according to an analysis from UNESCO, which points to “a whole set of expectations and social restrictions – maternity and care, gender prejudices and stereotypies, among others.”[xi]

In order to access information from ICTs, a person must first know how to use the technology. The “learning digital divide”[xii] disproportionately affects women in countries around the world. Without changes in education, the speed of technological innovation will continue to widen the knowledge gap in the digital information society. Women will be the ones left farthest behind.

More effort is needed to make women active ICT stakeholders. Women need to take a larger piece of the ICT pie. There is still a long way to go; as of 2020, the share of female graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is still less than 15% in most countries.[xiii]

Grabbing hold of ICTs

“Empowerment” is a frequently used term in humanitarianism. But what does it really mean in the context of women and access to ICTs?

Feminist notions of empowerment see women as active participants in a process – not as passive beneficiaries. Recognizing this, UNDP advocates for a gender mainstreaming approach to disaster risk reduction. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015–2030) also points to gender equity as a pillar reinforcing sustainable societies for all.

Exclusion from the digital information society hits women particularly hard in countries that are latecomer users of ICT. It is essential that women become producers of technology as well as users so that they are not blocked from the economic, political and cultural influence offered by access to ICTs.

Making women an equal part of the conversation

With their unique perspectives and experiences, women can contribute enormously to disaster risk management and resilience. Supporting women through access to technology, communication and community networks are all part of enhancing women’s safety during and after disasters. Empowering women with access to information also makes it possible for them to safeguard their families and livelihoods – a concept which runs deep in Emergency Telecommunications Cluster’s programming for Services for Communities.

Women have impressive capacities to organize, lobby and inform. Specifically targeting women with access to ICTs could help the humanitarian community avoid reinforcing oppressive gender patterns after a disaster. Not only that, disasters may even offer a chance to disrupt gender disparities.[xv]

Women are often the ones who stay at the site of the event, looking after children and the elderly, rebuilding communities from what has been lost in the fire, flood, cyclone or drought - these are the traditional gendered divisions of labour in many high-risk countries. This creates an even stronger imperative for women to be co-owners of the digital information society.

Investing in women’s access to ICTs means investing in sustainable, disaster resilient communities where both men and women are equally empowered to rebuild an informed and dignified future.