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Clarifying misconceptions on gender and risk

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Women have valuable knowledge and skills that can inform and improve risk management strategies. UNDP photo

This post is part of a series from UNDP experts sharing their views and experiences in the lead up to the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction taking place in May and the World Reconstruction Conference in June.

Discussions on risk reduction will be centre stage over the coming months, and gender will undoubtedly enter the conversation.  So when advocating for an inclusion of gender-responsive risk reduction policy and action, we must clear up a few common misconceptions that could potentially undermine these efforts.

Misconception number 1: Gender is just about women.

While the widespread concept of integrating gender has become synonymous with making sure to consider women, it is in fact much more nuanced than that; and it goes well beyond peppering the words ‘women’ across a document or proposal.

Gender is about ensuring that perspectives and needs of both men and women are taken into account.  While it is true that women have historically been (and often continue to be) left out of decision-making, considering gender is more about understanding the local gender dynamics than it is about focusing on women.

The project I coordinate, the Canada-UNDP Climate Change Adaptation Facility, encompasses projects across six countries, all working to prepare communities for disaster and climate impacts, particularly smallholder farmers.  A study done in 2016 analyzed the gender-related experiences and lessons learned from the six countries. It defines gender dynamics in three ways:  roles and responsibilities, gender-based differences in accessing resources (e.g. land, water, finance) and gender power relations.  Understanding these dynamics, and how they relate to both men and women, helps ensure gender-responsive adaptation.

Let me give you an example.

The Tillaberi region in Eastern Niger has been facing chronic food insecurity for over a decade due to environmental degradation and climate change-induced drought. Gendered roles and responsibilities look like this: Men typically own the land to produce staple crops (e.g. millet, sorghum) during the rainy season and then migrate to find additional work in the lean season, while women stay at home to take care of the household.

Our project understood this, and the associated power dynamics . To address the risk, it took a two-pronged approach. First, we introduced new drought-resilient varieties of millet as well as improved water management practices. These efforts helped ease men’s workload and increase production of this staple crop.  Second, the project supported women to undertake off-season vegetable production during the lean season.  This included securing access to and protection of land from men and engaging groups to collectively manage the plot - which was easier for women who had other responsibilities and worked well in existing cooperatives.

These complementary approaches have led to a substantial increase in food security, through increased crop production for both consumption and income generation.  Considering these gender dynamics and taking different approaches for men and women therefore helped the entire household and community.

Misconception number 2: Gender is always about vulnerability.

Many times, especially when justifying gender-responsive approaches from a risk perspective, the argument is that “women are often more vulnerable to risks and therefore must be targeted.”  Don’t get me wrong, this is certainly true; and in many cases this is forgotten. However, this does not mean that the focus should be on this vulnerability.

Women are leaders in managing natural resources and have valuable knowledge and skills, which can inform and benefit adaptation approaches. Providing them with a voice can strengthen disaster and climate risk reduction approaches as well as reduce gender inequalities.

Providing a voice to women in Watershed Management Committees in Haiti led to the selection of different trees for reforestation.  While men wanted trees for charcoal and timber (all income-generating), women preferred fruit trees for household consumption (to address food security). The project provided both.  

Misconception number 3: Taking a gender-responsive approach is complicated, costly and takes time.

This could not be further from the truth. Every decision that is made when designing and implementing interventions already considers local dynamics, which include gender - whether explicit or not.

We simply need to be more thoughtful and conscious about the decisions already being made and how they relate to the local gender dynamics. Who has been consulted? Which knowledge or technologies are being applied, and where did they come from? Who will the selected strategies directly benefit?  Who will be responsible for acting?

Gender-responsive risk reduction approaches are simply better risk reduction approaches.

Taken one step further, employing gender-responsive approaches can also contribute to transforming gender relations in the society.  Empowerment is a key component of resilience.

As summarized in the CCAF study, based on field research: “Gender equality is a condition for successful adaptation to climate change… In order to be effective, adaptation responses need to consider the specific needs of both women and men, as well as the underlying gendered inequalities that may compound the impacts of climate change.”

Having visited the CCAF project countries and spoken directly with local participants, it is clear that the consideration of both men and women, and taking into account underlying gender dynamics, has helped strengthen the sustainability of these interventions.

From the Watershed Management Committee members in Sud Department in Haiti, to women vegetable growers in Preah Vihear, Cambodia, to the staple crop farmers in Tillaberi, Niger, they all feel ownership over this work – it is their project and their results. They are no longer vulnerable, but empowered to reduce risk and ensure longer-term resilience.

CCAF Gender and Food-Women in Haiti tending seedlings%2c including fruit trees%2c for reforestation_UNDP HaitiWomen members of Watershed Management Committees in Haiti tend seedlings, including fruit trees, for reforestation. Photo: UNDP Haiti

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