Reducing disaster risk: helping girls and boys to be safe

Landslides in Sierra Leone, flooding in South Asia, earthquakes in Mexico, and hurricanes in and around the Caribbean: On today’s International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, there is no shortage of reminders of the increasing risks posed by ‘natural’ disasters.

The myth that disasters are ‘natural’ and therefore unpredictable was debunked years ago. Global warming is in many cases intensifying what were once considered seasonal or once in a lifetime weather events. The magnitude and impact of disasters have as much to do with the exposure and vulnerability of people living in disaster-prone areas as they do with the disaster itself. But, there are ways to reduce that vulnerability. Schools located in an earthquake zone can be better built to handle disasters, girls can be given better access to early warning messages before a typhoon, and health workers can be better prepared to monitor and tackle malnutrition ahead of a drought.

A womand sits on the ground with her child, with a row of UNICEF buckets in the background
UNICEF/NepalA woman and her child wait to receive relief items distributed by UNICEF, including a treated mosquito net and blankets, in Gaur Municipality, Rautahat District, Nepal.

So who faces the greatest risks? Not surprisingly, those most affected by disasters are generally populations whose access to services was already limited, including people with disabilities. Women and girls often have fewer resources, less mobility, and more difficulty accessing life-saving information and networks. Violence against girls and women – including sexual violence, school-related, gender-based violence, and child marriage – may increase after a disaster.

But girls and women are also resilient.

As launched this week, the International Day of the Girl 2017 focuses on the needs and opportunities of girls before, during and after emergencies. Long-term solutions designed with and for girls and women can strengthen resilience and lead to opportunities that transform lives. Girls, especially adolescent girls, need platforms to voice the challenges they face every day, explore workable solutions and hold others accountable to their promises for safety and services. The Compact for Young People in Humanitarian Action (Youth Compact), endorsed by UNICEF and more than 40 humanitarian organizations, is one such platform to make sure that young people – including adolescent girls – are informed, consulted and meaningfully engaged throughout all stages of humanitarian action.

Hearing from girls and women in the community should start long before a crisis occurs. Hearing what they have to say about increasing risks from natural and human-made disasters is a core aspect of UNICEF’s approach to risk-informed programming. When UNICEF works with governments and other partners to help fulfill child rights, we consider the potential impacts of climate change, natural hazards, epidemics, conflict and other ‘shocks’. This means working with girls and boys themselves, as well as their caregivers and other stakeholders, to understand how children and communities are at risk, which vulnerable groups face the highest risk, and what can be done.

Girls presenting in their classroom
UNICEF/GeorgiaSeventh-grade students (standing left-right), Ana Marjanishvili, Margo Khundzakishvili, Milena Mukaeliani and Ina Teimurazovi, present their poster on earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. The poster is part of a presentation on how to stay safe in the event of natural disasters, at Metla Public in Metla, a mountainous village north of Tbilisi, Georgia.

Very practical actions make a difference. A few examples:

  • Central Asia, where girls and boys took part in community risk assessments. They identified the main risks (such as flooding), the most vulnerable (perhaps a household headed by a single mother), and created “hazards maps” to present to local officials.
  • Another example is U-Report, a social messaging tool with nearly 4 million youth subscribers globally. Having this platform in place before Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria struck in and around the Caribbean allowed easy access to essential information, including thousands of female users living in the area, giving them unprecedented access and voice.

Risk-informed programming can also significantly reduce the costs and time required for humanitarian response. On average, $1 invested in UNICEF’s emergency-preparedness systems will yield more than $7 of savings in future emergency response.

Measures to prevent and reduce risk, including by better programmatic integration, are central to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Paris Climate Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals and the World Humanitarian Summit. These all emphasize the link between key factors of equity – including gender and poverty – and natural hazards, climate change, and conflict to support the adoption of a more coherent and integrated approach to programming. This vision is also clearly outlined in the 2018-21 UNICEF Strategic Plan and Gender Action Plan.

As we map the global situation of girls and women and chart the path of climate change and disasters, the picture becomes clear. If we are going to reduce risk and increase resilience, we must hear solutions from girls and women and do more to support safer and more resilient communities for this generation and the next.

Antony Spalton is the Risk Reduction and Resilience Specialist with UNICEF’s Programme Division in New York.

Maha Muna is the Regional Gender Advisor at the Europe and Central Asia Regional Office for UNICEF based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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  1. Thank you for highlighting the importance of not only learning from women and girls in how to better mitigate against and respond to disasters, but also in consciously making more space for them to lead. On the International Day of the Girl Child, this message is especially resonant!