Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction: attention for gender, disability and special needs

Georg Frerks (Netherlands Defence Academy)

Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) ultimately aims at saving people and protecting them against harm due to natural or man-made disasters. This is not only done by looking at people’s specific vulnerabilities, but also by emphasizing their capacities, assets and resilience. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 – 2030 calls for an ‘all-of-society approach’ that is people-centered and inclusive. Governments should, among others, engage with all relevant stakeholders, including women, children and youth, persons with disabilities, poor people, migrants, indigenous peoples, and older persons in the design and implementation of policies, plans and standards.

Disaster risk reduction requires an All-of-Society engagement and partnership. It also requires empowerment and inclusive, accessible and non-discriminatory participation, paying special attention to people disproportionately affected by disasters, especially the poorest. A gender, age, disability and culture perspective should be integrated in all policies and practices, and women and youth leadership should be promoted. In this context, special attention should be paid to the improvement of organized voluntary work of citizens (United Nations (2015) Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, p. 19)

These groups may have special needs that deserve attention in order to assure that DRR policies and practices not only include them, but are also sufficiently tuned to their special needs and conditions. In the EDUCEN project gender and disability were highlighted as priority areas in this regard, but also other groups were discussed in the EDUCEN workshops and exercises.


Gender refers to “the socially defined or constructed sex roles, attitudes and values which communities and societies ascribe as appropriate for one sex or the other”.

The concept of gender

Gender is defined as “the socially defined or constructed sex roles, attitudes and values which communities and societies ascribe as appropriate for one sex or the other. Gender does not describe the biological sexual characteristics by which females and males are identified” (The Sphere Project 2000). Bouta, Frerks and Bannon say that: “Gender roles vary according to socio-economic, political and cultural contexts, and are affected by other factors, including age, class and ethnicity. Gender roles are learned and negotiated, or contested. They are therefore changeable. Besides differences in roles between women and men, roles among women and men differ as well, while both women and men may also combine different roles individually over time or even simultaneously” (2005: 3).

It should, however, be underlined that making gender synonymous with the positions and roles of women and men constitutes an extremely limiting and reductionist gender view. According to Dubravka Zarkov gender is better seen as an organizing principle of social life that affects different levels of social reality, not only individual people. Gender is part of everyday social relations of power that reproduce or challenge gender and gendered relations (Zarkov in Bouta et al 2005).

Over the last two decades, gender issues have increasingly become an explicit part of disaster analysis and management and there is a growing awareness of the different relations between gender and disaster. The call for gender-sensitive disaster management is motivated by the question of how to intervene in disaster situations without losing track of their gender dimensions, not rarely with the explicit aim to prevent that women are overlooked or marginalized in disaster response. This is also needed to ensure that disaster responses are tuned to the gender-specific needs and problems that women and men face.

  • The effects and impacts of disasters differ for men and women due to biological, sexual and socio-cultural factors
  • Gender dynamics often translate into particular gender-specific patterns of vulnerability as well as resilience and also affect patterns of coping, how disaster experiences are built up, and risks perceived.
  • Stereotypical images of women as passive and incapacitated victims overshadow the fact that they possess valuable knowledge, skills and experiences that as a consequence remain unnoticed in many disaster policies and responses.

“A gender perspective should be integrated into all disaster risk management policies, plans and decision-making processes, including those related to risk assessment, early warning, information management, and education and training” (The General Assembly and the Hyogo Framework for Action quoted in Valdés 2009: 19).

Gender is of utmost relevance to disasters and disaster management. First of all, the effects and impacts of disasters differ for men and women. This is due to biological, sexual and socio-cultural factors including gender relations in a community. Different reproductive functions, menstruation, pregnancy, child bearing and lactating require culturally adapted support and protection for women and girls. These biological and gender dynamics often translate in particular gender-specific patterns of vulnerability as well as resilience. They also affect patterns of coping, how disaster experiences are built up and risks perceived, how risk awareness is distributed and attitudes forged. In many instances the distribution of knowledge, assets, income, livelihood possibilities, decision-making power, and access to services is also highly gendered.

In addition, women and girls are often seen as physically and emotionally weak, inferior to men and boys, dependent, subordinate and generally as a burden. In disaster these perceptions are extended to identify them as passive and incapacitated victims. In reality, women appear to have valuable knowledge, skills and experiences, but this goes unnoticed in disaster policies and formal disaster mitigation and recovery arrangements ((Ariyabandu 2009).

There is evidence that the mortality rates in recent disasters (esp. the Indian Ocean tsunami) have been higher for women than for men, due to a combination of cultural aspects and gendered patterns of vulnerability. But also disaster recovery is biased with less participation, access and rights for women .

A gender focus should not exclude men. Gender is always a relational topic, and also men and boys have specific needs, capabilities and vulnerabilities. It is also of the essence to deal with masculinities and the way they inform male behaviour and attitudes. Several programmes did focus on women only, sidelining men who also had lost nearly all they had in the disaster and also had their share of grief and sorrow. But apart from that, successful interventions simply will have to include men, in an effort of ‘men-streaming’, as it was dubbed by Bannon and Correia (2006) as meaningful changes cannot happen without the ‘other half of gender’, as Bannon and Correia have titled their book on men’s issues in development.

There is a lot of helpful material available on how to make disaster management gender-inclusive or gender-specific in the form of guidelines, tools and checklists. Be aware that these may need to be adjusted to your own specific situation or purpose.

Gender-specific disaster management instruments

There is a burgeoning literature on how to make disaster management gender-aware, gender-inclusive, gender-specific, gender-fair or simply ‘gendered’. It is not possible to do justice to all what has been written and we suffice a by only a few references that can further guide researchers and practitioners.

Elaine Enarson is the founder of the Gender and Disaster Network (GDN). She is one of the most influential scholarly writers on the subject. Her several publications are a rich source to review the debate. The chapters ‘Representation of Women in Disasters’’ and ‘How Gender Changes Disaster Studies’ in her book are very informative and insightful (Enarson 2011). Enarson designed for the GDN “Six principles for engendered relief and reconstruction’’ comprising again over fifty issues warranting attention in disaster planning, analysis and implementation (reproduced in Valdés 2009).

The website of GDN provides access to the Gender and Disaster Sourcebook. In addition, Chakrabarti and Walia offer a comprehensive toolkit for mainstreaming gender in emergency response, comprising again sixteen partial toolkits for the issues covered varying from preparedeness and early warning, search and rescue, health, livelihood and Water Supply and Sanitation (2009).

Based on its experiences with the tsunami relief aid in Sri Lanka, UNIFEM has gendered the five priority areas of the Hyogo Platform for Action (reproduced in Joshi and Bhatt 2009). In addition Joshi and Bhatt offer six specific recommentations to better engender future disaster recovery (see 2009: 318).

People with disabilities

People with disabilities often do not recognize signs of danger or receive timely warning messages. Moreover, many among them are unable to respond quickly during an emergency due to lack of mobility or cognitive or sensory impairment. People with disabilities are often excluded from emergency preparedness policies and planning and run the risk of being left behind in an evacuation or forced to evacuate without vital supports.

People with a disability in preparedness, response and recovery

There is limited research on the experiences of people with disabilities during and following a major disaster. In the majority of planning documents there is reference to disabled people, but they are often just mentioned as members of vulnerable or special needs populations, and there is little acknowledgement of disabled people’s heterogeneity (Priestly and Hemingway 2007). The literature suggests that disabled people are more likely to be poor, to live in low income neighborhoods, to live alone or to have high health care needs (Paton and Johnston 2000; Spence, Lachlan, Burke, & Seeger 2007), all factors that contribute to an increased likelihood of being impacted by disaster.


People with disabilities are often excluded from emergency preparedness policies and planning. The lack of attention to disability-related needs could result in people with a disability left behind in an evacuation or forced to evacuate without vital supports such as medications, mobility devices, or companion animals (Peek and Stough 2010).

For those disabled people who did respond to the earthquake in Christchurch by thinking about how to prepare themselves for future emergencies, some found that the advice provided by Civil Defence was not appropriate to their situation, because it was too general or made assumptions about people’s bodies or lives that did not apply to them (Phibbs et al. 2015).


People with disabilities are often unable to respond quickly during an emergency (Chou et al. 2004). In a sudden-onset disaster such as a tornado or earthquake, people with disabilities may for example experience difficulties in taking recommended protective actions or escaping. People with mobility limitations may be unable to hike up a hillside or run to an evacuation point. People with cognitive impairments may not recognize the signs of danger (Kales and Enders 2007) or may get confused by emergency signals (Scotti et al. 2007). Studies on people with sensory disabilities such as blindness or deafness suggests that these individuals often do not receive timely warning messages (Philips and Morrow 2007). In the case of Christchurch, disruption to electricity supply, resulting in an inability to watch television or charge cell phones were cited as key reasons for not being able to access emergency information. Text messaging was a key source of information for people who were deaf while vision impaired people needed to be able to access up-to-date verbal information (Phibbs et al. 2015).

In addition, they encounter difficulties during evacuation. Van Willigen, Edwards, Edwards, and Hessee (2000) found that evacuation rates of households in North Carolina with a family member with a disability were anywhere from 9 to 25 percent lower. These households were more likely to report transportation issues and the lack of accessible shelters influenced their decision not to evacuate (Peek and Stough 2010).


Most shelters and refugee camps are not accessible to people with disabilities; they are often even turned away from shelters and refugees camps due to a perception that they need ‘complex medical’ services. Insufficient structures to assist disabled people in the disaster response or recovery phases increased exposure to risk. Common difficulties for people with a disability are inability to access support workers, responding agencies that were not set up to cater for the needs of disabled people, and temporary housing and public information that is not disability accessible (Phibbs et al. 2015).

Disruption to physical, social, economic, and environmental networks and support systems affect persons with disabilities much more than the general population. In addition, people with disabilities are less likely to have access to the social and economic resources necessary for recovery (Klinenberg 2002) and there is a potential for discrimination on the basis of disability when resources are scarce. In conclusion, the needs of persons with disabilities continue to be excluded over the more long-term recovery and reconstruction efforts, thereby missing the opportunity to ensure that cities are accessible and inclusively resilient to future disasters (UN website on disability).

For more information on disaster and disability also see chapter 3.7: Diversity and Inclusion of people with a disability

Other groups with special needs

There are many other groups with special needs that require special attention in disaster response. They include children, the elderly, socially excluded communities, homeless, (illegal) migrants, chronically ill, (linguistic) minorities, tourists, HIV positive individuals, males who have sex with males (MSMs), occupational minorities. Many of those groups are socially excluded and face special risks or lack empowerment.

Socially excluded groups

According to the facilitators’ guidebook ‘Practicing Gender & Social Inclusion In Disaster Risk Reduction’, socially excluded groups experience varying degrees of alienation (distancing) in the disaster reduction or emergency response programs. This distancing is also an outcome of the wider social processes within which these groups usually receive inadequate attention and are systematically disadvantaged owing to different reasons. These groups face social exclusion on the following grounds:

  • These groups are, in various ways, kept away from full participation in the wider economic, political, cultural, and social life;
  • The enduring discrimination and historical social features entrapped these groups in a situation below the minimum threshold of well-being while hindering their full participating in the society.
  • They are lacking in power and access to decision-making that could influence policies or create opportunities for improving their standard of living.

‘Social exclusion describes a process by which certain groups are systematically disadvantaged because they are discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, caste, descent, gender, age, disability, HIV status, migrant status or where they live. Discrimination occurs in public institutions, such as the legal system or education and health services, as well as social institutions like the household, and in the community’ (DFID (2005). However, the degree of discrimination varies from one society to another, as do the forms that social exclusion takes. Social exclusion operates on the ground and accelerates the vulnerabilities of these groups through three different processes:

  • exclusion in the community and social interaction,
  • institutional or organizational exclusion and
  • exclusion by the market

(Directorate of Relief and Rehabilitation, Ministry of Food and Disaster Management (2009, p. 16-17)


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