Women, disasters and TOWNS
The occasion was meant to introduce to the public the nine new recipients of The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service (TOWNS) award. But because of intervening events, much of it was also taken up with concerns related to Supertyphoon “Yolanda” and its aftermath.
Noraida Adang Abdullah Karim, awardee in the field of social work, has a lot of personal experiences with crisis and displacement. She has been a “bakwit” or evacuee since childhood, fleeing her hometown and other places of refuge each time conflict broke out in central Mindanao. But now she also responds to other humanitarian emergencies around the country, and when asked how she would assess the government response to Yolanda, remarks: “There is no perfect response to disaster or conflict. We cope by learning, by doing, and we in the frontlines draw our strength from you, the people.”
Climate change and its impact on the environment are issues that Gemma Narisma, awardee for atmospheric science, is intimately aware of. Her work with the Manila Observatory brings her front and center in efforts to address this “global phenomenon,” although she cautions that living with climate change “goes beyond just the storm,” with people, especially Filipinos, needing to come to terms with our continuing “exposure and vulnerability” and finding the means to “do something about this.”
As mentioned earlier, the TOWNS women have resolved to launch our own response to the needs of Yolanda survivors, with a special focus on women and children, and with an eye toward their long-term survival and health, including their mental and emotional health.
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Dr. Aura Matias, chair of this year’s TOWNS search, said 149 women have received the TOWNS recognition since 1974. The nine winners this year are among the 51 nominees, undergoing a prescreening and final interview by a board of judges headed by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, herself a TOWNS awardee in the field of law.
“They are women of power and substance,” remarked Matias, adding that they symbolize “Filipina power in motion.”
Powerful, indeed, are this year’s TOWNS women. Aside from Karim and Narisma, they are: Darlene Berberabe, president of the Pag-Ibig Fund and awardee for government service; Ani Karina de Leon Brown, pioneering triathlete and only the second woman to be recognized for her achievements in sports; Karen Davila, TV anchor and host and awardee for broadcast journalism; Rachelle Gerodias, world-famous soprano and awardee for performing arts; Eleanor Pinugu, who runs a school and a café to support it, and awardee for social enterprise/education; Ma. Amihan Bonifacio Ramolete, puppet artist and awardee for theater arts; and Maricor Soriano, a physics professor at the University of the Philippines and awardee for applied physics.
All nine of them will receive their awards on Nov. 21 at the Dusit Hotel, with the Chief Justice handing them their trophies. Many thanks to TOWNS’ long-time partners, the Metrobank Foundation and Metrobank Card Corp., which obviously believe enough in Filipino women to help in seeking out the truly outstanding and deserving.
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I got to talk recently with Junice Demetrio Melgar, executive director of the nongovernment organization Likhaan, about women’s special needs and vulnerabilities in disasters. In the mad rush to send immediate aid and relief to the survivors, we observed, the “special needs” of women—often considered luxuries but which are essential to their health and dignity—are often ignored, if not forgotten.
Here’s a list drawn up by Junice for potential donors who might want to consider including these in their relief packs and shipments.
First are personal effects such as underwear, soap for bathing and for washing clothes, face towel (bimpo), a dipper (tabo), a pail, sanitary napkins, comb, hair tie/clips, shampoo, towel, toothbrush, toothpaste, nail clipper, and a malong (cloth tube) or blanket.
Junice also strongly suggests the inclusion of contraceptives, including emergency contraceptives, among the medical supplies to be distributed to women survivors, as well as antidysmenorrhea medication such as mefenamic acid, and iron and calcium supplements for pregnant evacuees.
Also suggested is the provision, if possible, of separate quarters for women and children in mass evacuation sites, or the putting up of curtains and other barriers for privacy, as well as bathroom and toilet facilities that are adequately covered, for privacy and safety.
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Violence against women and children is also an imminent risk for populations caught in postdisaster situations. In queues for relief goods, water and even transport out of Tacloban, for instance, we have seen how women, children and the elderly could be elbowed out or worse, in a vain attempt to compete against more able and aggressive men and boys.
In a manual on “Gender Sensitive Approaches to Disaster Management,” prepared by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, mention was made of the experience of women and girls after an earthquake struck El Salvador in 2001. Single women, the manual said, insisted that “sheeting for temporary shelters [be] opaque and strong. In the past, it had been translucent, making it easy to see when a woman was alone. Given that it had also been easily cut with a machete, many women were raped.”
Often, what authorities need to do is simply consult with women on their needs and requirements immediately after disaster strikes, and during the period of rehabilitation and reconstruction. And it’s as simple as ensuring that women are not just included but also actively take part in the planning, conceptualization and implementation of projects carried out in their name and for their own good.