Women, ICT and emergency telecommunications: opportunities and constraints



Disasters are the result of events that overwhelm local response capacity and impact social and economic development. Humanitarian response sets out to save lives and alleviate suffering caused by environmental disasters, including those arising from natural hazards and pandemics; and human-made disasters, including those arising from armed conflict. Disaster risk takes account of the probability of vulnerable conditions and the impact of disasters on lives, property, livelihoods, economic activity and the environment (UNDP, 2010). Risk is therefore highest for disaster prone communities which are otherwise particularly vulnerable.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Risks Landscape for 2020, assessed prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic, is depicted in Figure 1. It shows that environmental risks (climate action failure, extreme weather, biodiversity loss, disasters caused by natural hazards and human-made environmental disasters) feature among those with the highest combined rankings in likelihood and impact. Disasters caused by natural hazards, a keen focus of humanitarian work, claimed in excess of 1 330 000 lives and accounted for more than USD 2 900 billion in losses worldwide over the 20-year period from 1998 (CRED, 2018).

The Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft 2019 World Risk Report computes the World Risk Index (WRI) in terms of exposure (to earthquakes, cyclones, floods, drought, and sea-level rise), susceptibility (which depends on available infrastructure, food supply, and economic framework conditions), coping capacities (based on governance, healthcare, social and material security) and adaptive capacities (related to natural hazards, climate change and other challenges). Among other things, the report finds that island states are at particularly high risk on account of high levels of exposure and in many cases susceptibility, alongside poor coping and adaptive capacities. High exposure does not necessarily equate to high risk as some islands, and other countries, have very high exposure profiles but feature low levels of susceptibility along with high coping capacities. Japan, with its high exposure to earthquakes, is a case in point.

Disaster risks are strongly linked to aspects of poverty and inequality (IFHV, 2019) (UNDRR, 2015) (UN, 2020). Within countries, then, disaster risk is differentiated by a variety of pre-existing socioeconomic conditions and cultural norms. Social vulnerability, the limited capacity to prepare for, respond to and recover from the impact of future disasters based on prevailing social and cultural norms (Llorente-Marrón, Díaz-Fernández, Méndez-Rodríguez, & González Arias, 2020), heightens the impact of disasters.

There is convincing evidence that gender is one of the determinants of social vulnerability (Oxfam, 2005) (Giovene di Girasole & Cannatella, 2017) (Bahadur & Simonet, 2015). One measure of gender inequality is the Gender Inequality Index (GII) (Gaye, Klugman, Kovacevic, Twigg, & Zambrano, 2010) which is computed on the basis of reproductive health, empowerment and economic status. Reproductive health is measured in terms of maternal mortality ratio and adolescent birth rates; empowerment is measured on the basis of the proportion of parliamentary seats occupied by females and the proportion of adults 25 years and older with at least some secondary education; and economic status is measured in terms of the labour force participation rate of female and male populations aged 15 years and older. GII values range from 0 to 1, with higher values indicating higher levels of inequality between women and men. The most recent data on GII are available for the year 2018. Table 1 shows available GIIs for the 10 countries with the highest World Risk Index in that year (UNDP, 2020).

Women in countries that are at high risk for disasters and for which there exist high levels of gender inequality represent a particularly vulnerable population. Table 1 shows that eight of the ten countries at most risk in the sample year, 2018, are island nations in Asia and the Pacific. It also shows that nine of the ten feature GII values above the average (0.350) computed over 169 countries for which data are available (UNDP, 2019a). The region with the highest 2018 GII was South Asia (0.510). Though rankings and indices vary somewhat from year to year, Asia has been the most exposed to disasters, accounting for 39 per cent of the world’s climate-related disasters and 62 per cent of its geophysical disasters over the 20-year period from 1998 (CRED, 2018).

Disaster impacts include loss of life and the destruction and damage to property, other assets and the environment, both natural and built. Disruption to essential services is in many cases debilitating. Disaster impacts also include injury, disease and other negative effects on physical, mental, social and economic well-being. The displacement of persons from their homes is another debilitating impact of disasters, with women and children accounting for more than 75 per cent of refugees and displaced persons at risk from war, famine, persecution and disasters (UNFPA, n.d.). In Indonesia alone, three earthquakes, two tsunamis and a volcanic eruption between 2004 and 2010 left 1 035 000 persons displaced (World Bank, 2012). Many of the vulnerabilities of affected persons, particularly women, derive from pre-existing social, cultural, economic and other conditions that prevail pre- and postdisaster. Disasters amplify these vulnerabilities (Llorente-Marrón, Díaz-Fernández, Méndez-Rodríguez, & González Arias, 2020).

Risk management has been widely adopted by organizations, communities and countries to reduce the impact of disasters. The disaster risk management (DRM) cycle comprises four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Disaster resilience is correspondingly built through measures and capacities employed before, during and after the event. This report adopts the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR3 ) definition of resilience as “the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions through risk management” (UNDRR, n.d.).

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have come to play a central role in managing disaster risks (Williams & Phillips, 2014) (UN-APCICT/ESCAP, 2016) (ITU-D Study Group 2, 2017). However, women are on average less able to access ICTs than are men: globally, they use the Internet 17 per cent less, with a wider gap in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) (ITU, 2019a). Women in lowand middle-income countries are also 10 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone. The gender gap in mobile ownership is widest in South Asia (ITU, 2019a) and is not closing (GSMA, 2019a).

Purpose and approach

This report sets out to assess whether ICTs used to reduce disaster risk are benefiting women and men equally. It does so by considering vulnerability alone as it examines women’s circumstances in relation to men’s in the same geographies and with the same ICT infrastructure. It examines gendered disaster vulnerability as well as the gendered digital divide. In each case, vulnerability is considered from the lens of affected persons’ capacity to mitigate and prepare for (before), respond to (during) and recover from (after) disasters. These examinations and a range of ICT initiatives currently used to reduce gendered asymmetries, inform recommendations for ICT-enabled disaster risk reduction (DRR) for the most vulnerable. DRR refers to the systematic approach to identifying, assessing and reducing the risks of disaster. It aims to reduce socio-economic vulnerabilities to disaster as well as to treat with the environmental and other hazards that trigger them.