Helen Clark: Speech at a Public Side Event on “The Institutionalization of Women’s Leadership in Disaster Risk Reduction” at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction

14 Mar 2015

It is a great pleasure to address this side event on ”The Institutionalization of Women’s Leadership in Disaster Risk Reduction”.

I would like to begin by thanking the City of Sendai for co-hosting this session with UNDP and for welcoming the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction to Sendai. Your commitment to disaster risk reduction and the empowerment of women is commendable.

I also welcome my fellow panelists, each of whom has expertise in mainstreaming disaster risk reduction in their respective fields.

Today’s subject is one of critical importance. In the last twenty years, disasters have cost the lives of over a million people, affected more than four billion people, and cost the global economy at least $2 trillion (about 240 trillion yen). These disasters have devastated the livelihoods of people, impacted on the economies of countries, and eroded development progress.

This is an experience which the people of Japan and, above all, the residents of Tohoku region know all too well, with the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 being the greatest natural disaster in Japan’s recent history.

We just watched a video highlighting the impact of slow onset natural disasters associated with a changing climate. Many millions of people live in a continued cycle of disaster and development loss related to extreme climatic events, and are trapped in a state of poverty and insecurity. When we talk about disaster risk reduction, we need to focus on the heightened vulnerability which climate change brings.

When it was launched in Kobe in 2005, the Hyogo Framework for disaster risk reduction was the strongest acknowledgement yet that efforts to prevent, mitigate, and prepare for disasters needed to be scaled up. It kick-started a decade of progress which has seen 168 countries strengthen preparedness measures, reduce risks, and build resilience.

The world’s approach to disasters has also shifted – from a primarily reactive approach focused on humanitarian aid toward greater recognition that reducing disaster risk is central to development and must be mainstreamed into development.

Yet, to date, women and girls are all too often excluded from the design, development, and implementation of disaster risk reduction.

The end result is a resilience-gap, which leaves gender-specific concerns and capacities omitted from disaster management, including in such key areas as early warning systems, contingency planning, and long-term recovery. Yet, as women’s engagement and leadership are vital for successful disaster prevention, relief, and recovery, the sad truth is that women are disproportionately affected by disasters. Overall they are more likely than are men to die during and after a large-scale natural disaster. The 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh resulted in a disproportionate number of deaths of women at 71 per 1000 versus 15 per 1000 for men.

Social and cultural factors account for this heightened vulnerability. In some societies, women cannot leave their homes without permission from their husbands. In a time of threat, adolescent girls may be discouraged from going to shelters because of the threat of gender-based violence.

Gender inequalities will also impact on women’s capacity to recover from disasters – for example, where women do not have equal access to key resources, such as land or other property, credit, or even basic information.

A review of natural disasters in 141 countries between 1981 and 2002 showed that natural disasters shorten the life expectancy of women more than that of men. That gender-gap in life expectancy tends to be greater in places where women have very low social, economic, and political status. The extent of gender equality, poverty, and levels of development therefore all impact on how comprehensively prepared a community is when disaster strikes.

Yet, women play a crucial role in building community resilience, bolstering recovery efforts, and ensuring that their own needs and concerns are addressed. We saw this in the video a moment ago: when disaster strikes, women are on the frontline in moving forward with recovery. Whatever the conditions – drought which makes it more difficult to find wood for cooking, or flash floods which destroy crops – it is the women who still face the responsibility for putting food on the table to feed their families. As we saw, this situation has prompted women to adapt and find innovative solutions.

The Government of Japan has been a leader in integrating gender concerns into disaster planning. For example, recommendations in Japan’s 2013 guidelines for disaster planning and response include:
• ensuring that shelters maintain security measures to protect women and children from violence;
• increasing the number of women on local public bodies responsible for disaster preparedness; and
• holding women-only planning meetings.

They also address critical post-disaster concerns, such as the need to help women disaster victims find employment. This is indeed commendable, and something which others can learn from.

At UNDP, promoting women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction planning and recovery is an integral part of our work in helping countries build resilience. This includes the development of gender-responsive, disaster risk reduction legal frameworks; the promotion of women’s participation in decision-making bodies; the development of gender-responsive guidelines and database systems; and engaging women in the implementation of planning, information, and recovery activities on the ground.

In Vietnam, for example, UNDP and partners, including UN Women, supported the inclusion of women in the country’s disaster risk management system. The project focused on enhancing the role of women in the context of climate-related disasters through specific training aimed at improving the technical skills of women’s groups at local, district, and national levels. As a result, women’s participation in decision-making has increased. In October 2013, the Vietnam Women’s Union was legally recognized as part of the country’s disaster risk management system.

From UNDP’s work around the world, we have learned that it is critical that gender issues are not considered as “side-concerns” or “add-ons”, but as an integral part of successful policy measures. This is as true when we are promoting disaster risk reduction, as it is in tackling climate change, strengthening food security, and reducing poverty.

This UN Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction can ensure that the new global framework recognizes the vital role of women’s engagement and leadership, and pays specific attention to their roles, needs, and priorities in disaster risk reduction, including through setting gender-specific targets. To this end, we must also work to increase the generation and use of gender- and age-disaggregated data and analysis.


In conclusion, let me reiterate that promoting women’s equal participation and leadership in disaster risk reduction is essential.

I hope today’s discussion will bring us closer to a full recognition of this in global and national agendas.