Implementing gender sensitivity in disaster relief

This article contains excerpts from my interview with Bjorn Andersson from the UNFPA Asia-Pacific region. It addresses disaster relief in the context of recent flooding in Mongolia. Link to original article is currently unavailable.

Following a few days of downpour this past week, several roads in the Bayanzurkh District of Ulaanbaatar have been severely damaged, raising safety concerns for residents amidst flooding. The capital authorities have issued several notices of evictions to unauthorized families and entities located in at-risk zones, but reportedly, they have refused to move.

During the Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, one particular concept emphasized was the need for gender sensitivity in disaster risk reduction initiatives, including for floods. Bjorn Andersson, regional director of UNFPA, further explained the importance of gender sensitivity in times of natural disasters and humanitarian crises and praised Mongolia for its immense progress over the past decade in gender equality. In this situation, authorities hope to implement gender-sensitive practices for displaced families particularly affected by the flooding.

A gender-sensitive and gender-responsive disaster risk reduction program refers to ensuring that women are provided with access to sexual and reproductive health resources during times of emergency, such as menstrual supplies, contraceptives, or pregnancy delivery services. It additionally refers to educating and mobilizing women so that they are equipped to take care of both themselves and others.

Andersson, originally from Sweden, has occupied the post of regional director of the UNFPA in Bangkok since September 2017. Prior to becoming the regional director, Andersson worked in sustainability and development, and was additionally at the UNFPA headquarters in New York, advocating sexual and reproductive health rights as one of the main tenets of the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals.

Andersson applauded the progress in gender sensitivity made at AMCDRR 2018.
“The language around gender, gender equality, women’s empowerment continues to be there,” he said. “But we are especially happy that we have references to sexual reproductive health, reproductive rights. Both are integral at the national and international level.”

In particular, the final action plan for 2018-2020 combined gender equality into its framework under priority four, “enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to ‘build back better’ in recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction.” It specifically called for national and local governments to “integrate disaster risk reduction into disaster preparedness planning, ensuring comprehensive and accessible service and referral mechanisms to promote the specific needs of women and girls, children and youth, older persons, persons with disabilities, displaced persons and other at-risk populations, including prevention of and response to gender-based violence.”

Mongolia in particular has made significant progress with its efforts to promote women’s rights in general. Andersson praised it as a leader for other Asian countries.

“Based on the ICPD, I think Mongolia […] is one of the more progressive countries in the region in terms of accepting reproductive rights and also realizing the need for women’s empowerment and gender equality,” said Andersson. “The fact that you have adopted laws in Parliament related to young people and domestic violence — these are political signs which are key in order to make sure that you continue to make all this progress. There are many interesting projects — for example, telemedicine — that have worked out extremely well in Mongolia, given the vast land area and the fact that you have so many people in rural areas with limited access to healthcare.”

Telemedicine connects pregnant women living in remote areas to faraway care. Pregnant women and local doctors consult with specialists through a computer screen to provide quality care even over long distances.

However, despite progress, there are still challenges that many Asian countries — Mongolia included — may face. “Reproductive rights is very sensitive in many societies, but it’s important in disaster risk reduction, normal development, and humanitarian situations,” said Andersson. “And this varies from one society to another, so there is not just one answer to this. […] And there are many questions around access. For example, around contraceptives. Men who think, ‘No, I don’t want to use condoms!’ Or governments may not invest in family planning services, or there is a shortage, so people cannot access or cannot get all of the contraceptives, which increases unwanted pregnancies, which then increases the risk of maternal death.”

According to the Asian Disaster Reduction Center, Mongolia is particularly susceptible to
droughts, dzuds, blizzards, dust storms, hail, wildfire, desertification, and — as in the current situation — floods. The disaster response procedures are gender-sensitive, but the country as a whole has a limited supply of free contraceptives due to lack of an allocated budget to contraceptives by the government.

To achieve gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction, the UNFPA and other members that spoke at the AMCDRR plan to continue advocating with local governments and continuing public outreach. Additionally, the UNFPA distributes dignity kits to individuals at disaster sites. Dignity kits include basic toiletries as well as sanitary supplies. During the 2016 dzud, the UNFPA issued dignity kits to provide for the reproductive needs of women.

“UNFPA uses the networks established through distribution of dignity kits to organization sensitization sessions for communities and raise awareness about basic sexual and reproductive health, women’s protection, and ante- and postnatal care,” said an infographic on the UNFPA’s participation in the 2016 dzud.

Andersson asserted the importance of achieving these standards.
“Women are the backbone of families. In disasters or humanitarian situations, often the women are caretakers. They are very resourceful in finding opportunities for raising whatever amount of funds or whatever it might be.”

He added, “By strengthening women and men — everyone’s sexual and reproductive health — we also contribute to achieving sustainable development goals and building this resilience in society.”

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