Article by Airlie Taylor (Consortium Manager, Myanmar Consortium for Community Resilience)
ActionAid Myanmar has been working on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) since 2008. Our activities help people reduce their exposure and vulnerability to hazards, and support communities to prevent, prepare for and mitigate the negative impacts of disasters.
In 2008 Cyclone Nargis tore through coastal regions of the country, killing an estimated 135,000 people and affecting a massive 2.4 million. It was the most devastating and deadly natural disaster in Myanmar in recorded history. Since then, ActionAid Myanmar has developed significant expertise in the field and is now recognised as one of the leading organisations on DRR in the country.
Our focus is on women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction. This grew from a recognition that women are disproportionately affected by disasters — based on evidence from multiple disasters not only in Myanmar but across other countries.
"People think men can do more than women because they are men. But women’s participation in preparedness is vital. They are the people who have to cope when there is a disaster,” says Htay Htay Kywel, a community development volunteer from Pyapon in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwaddy Delta.
Women’s role as caregivers means that their first priority is to evacuate children and elderly relatives, whilst strict conservative social norms mean that many are reluctant to leave their homes for safe shelters if the disaster has stripped them of their clothing. At the same time, women are often sidelined in the recovery and rehabilitation phases; Myanmar’s patriarchal community structure, amongst other factors, leaves little space for women to make their voices heard in decision-making processes and influence how their communities are rebuilt.
However, whilst women are generally more vulnerable to disasters, they also possess a range of capacities which make them excellent leaders of disaster risk reduction and emergency response efforts.
Women are often better connected and have stronger social networks through which to share information on impending disasters.
“We spend a lot of time talking to each other anyways, and that gives us many opportunities to mobilise people," explains Win Mar, a community volunteer from the Ayeyarwaddy Delta region.
Indeed, their traditional role as caregivers also means that women can often more accurately represent the interests of other sections of the community, including older people and children.
“Without women and girls, nothing would be accomplished. They know about household needs more than us,” explains Zay Lin Htun, a development worker from Kyone Kan village.
The promotion of women’s leadership is a key component of all ActionAid Myanmar’s work on DRR. With financial support from DFID, the European Commission and private donors, and working in collaboration with international as well as local partner organisations, ActionAid Myanmar is currently supporting communities across Myanmar’s hazard-prone coastal regions to implement disaster risk reduction activities.
Our approach involves raising awareness of hazards such as storms, cyclones and fires, increasing understanding of why and how men, women and other sections of the community are vulnerable and helping communities recognise how both men and women can contribute to preventing, preparing for and responding to disasters.
Involving men in activities that promote women’s leadership is crucial to transforming attitudes and ensuring change is sustained. In the Ayeyarwaddy Delta — where ActionAid is working in partnership with Oxfam and Plan International as well as local partner Action for Social Aid — awareness-raising sessions on gender and trainings on women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction have helped men and women understand the positive contribution women can play to disaster risk reduction and wider community development work. At the same time, these activities have opened up space for women to join — and indeed lead — community disaster risk reduction structures such as Village Disaster Management Committees and Task Forces responsible for pre-disaster early warning and post-disaster search and rescue and first aid activities.
But perhaps the most significant change is within the women themselves.
“Before, when I went around the village and asked other women to work on social activities with me, they would run away. The reason was that their mother or father didn’t want them to be involved in those kinds of activities — because of the social norms on how women should behave,” says Daw Ma Ma, a woman village leader from Kyone Kan village.
“After they attended the trainings, many of them proactively participate in village development work and lead discussions.”
Htay Htay Kywel echoes these sentiments: “After women have attended the training, they have more confidence to speak in front of many people. Training gave them a chance to practice public speaking during discussions. Before, they just kept their feelings and problems in their hearts and never spoke out. But now, the situation is different. They speak up about what they think and what they feel about our community.”
Note: Some of the quotes included in this article were documented by Oxfam, working in partnership with ActionAid under the ActionAid-led, European Commission-funded Myanmar Consortium for Community Resilience DIPECHO IX project.