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Empower, Trust and Communicate: Steps to Protect Vulnerable Communities During Natural Disasters | Budhima Wickramarachchi | Christchurch

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ශ්‍රී LankaNZ is a free distributed Sri Lankan Community Newspaper that aims to reach a Sri Lankan population of over 18,000 all over New Zealand. The demand for entertainment in literacy media itself gave birth to ශ්‍රී LankaNZ

There is a lot to learn from a country like Bangladesh that crafted world-leading systems to protect people from natural disasters of storms, landslides, tsunamis etc. The plans were done best by involving an army of female volunteers to support local communities during these difficult times. 

Due to our actions, there is an increase in natural disasters taking place and waiting to take place across the world. The most recent example is the flood in Pakistan. But unfortunately, the adverse effects of such disasters are felt more among developing and underdeveloped communities on the maritime coast of South Asia and Central Africa.

Being a trailblazer when it comes to having an effective early warning system not only helps save lives but also keeps people informed of what’s happening around them. With climate change playing a significant role in these misfortunes, it could be challenging if you live in a disaster-prone country. For example, countries like Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh experience several cyclones and storms each year. As a result, floods and coastal erosion are; a major threat to low-lying coastal regions, leaving millions of people with no access to food, clean water and shelter. 

In recent years the death toll in extreme weather events has drastically decreased thanks to some of the brilliant technology and communication systems adopted by developed countries. However, this is not the case for some developing and underdeveloped nations. In addition, there is a huge gender disparity in who is most impacted by disasters.

The ability to quickly spread information at the local level is vital when saving the lives of women worldwide who are often disproportionately affected by sudden-onset disasters. Gender descrimination in these countries has caused lower literacy rates, gendered roles and social practices confining women to homes, limiting their access to information and the decision-making process, even at home levels. As such, most existing early warning systems are ineffective as female members in the community often receive such information filtered through the men. Therefore, such info is not adequately disseminated across the female population. This resulted in a higher incidence of  female-deaths from natural disasters. A good example is Cyclone Bhola in Bangladesh in 1970, where the female deaths were fourteen times more than that of males deaths.

Choosing not to evacuate from a disaster zone is one of the main reasons for an increase in the death toll among women in developing and under-developed nations. Less emphasis on evacuation is due to the belief that their place is at  homes or for fear of gender-based violences they undergo in overcrowded shelters. In some cases, women refuse to go to evacuation centres as they are embarrassed at having to breastfeed in public and sleeping among strangers. In addition, women also wait for permission from the male member of the family before taking refuge in these centres even  in an emergency.It is essential to address these fears. Women volunteers, like in Bangladesh, play a significant role in persuading women to evacuate. 

Therefore, adopting a gender-sensitive approach to disaster management through onboarding female volunteers will help them access spaces that men otherwise are unable to, thereby ensuring that vital messages about incoming disasters spread among their networks which otherwise will be isolated. In addition to enlisting females in volunteering, communities should work to elevate their social standing. If not, they would remain relegated to the domestic sphere, with no role in shaping their local communities.

Empowering women in the community will give them autonomy over their evacuation and, at the same time, will enable them to help with disaster management and relief programs by managing shelters and decreasing the risk of gender-based violence during evacuation.

By Budhima Wickramarachchi – Christchurch

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