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Safeguarding women’s rights during disasters

With the national elections only a few months away, a deeper dive into gender issues in emergencies is of utmost urgency, since the Philippines ranks high among the disaster-prone countries globally due to deadly weather events and decadeslong armed conflict.

While there have been many hard-won gains in advancing women’s rights, women and girls still face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and oppression, which limit their access to public services, livelihoods and social protections. These systemic inequalities are compounded during humanitarian emergencies.

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Hard lessons from Typhoon  “Ompong” and Marawi. In the Philippines, there are hard lessons to be learned from communities most affected by disasters and conflict. Respective assessments of Ompong last year and the Marawi siege in 2017 have shown how negative stereotyping and harmful gender norms affect women and girls before, during and after emergencies. For example, gendered divisions of labor, where women carry most of unpaid care work responsibilities, and power dynamics within the family help explain why women and men facing the same emergency would have vastly different lived experiences.

Humanitarian responses that do not consider the differentiated impacts of such crises on women and men perpetuate a narrative of male dominance and a tolerance for gender-based violence. Further, the sparseness of consistent sex- and age-differentiated data across the sector prevents an accurate measurement of the magnitude of the problem and, consequently, will pose difficulties in determining if communities in need of life-saving support were reached.

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Disproportionate burdens. In the aftermath of Typhoon Ompong, clean water was an urgent priority, with some families having to travel at least a kilometer or cross several rivers to access clean drinking water. The burden of water collection disproportionately fell on the shoulders of women and girls. People living in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas, despite being among those severely affected, could barely access assistance. When food stocks dwindled, many women took out loans just to be able to buy food and other basic supplies. The men, who were mostly farmers, also had to take out loans to buy farming inputs and seeds, because the typhoon had totally devastated their farms and destroyed their crops. These loans, in turn, put women and men in an unending cycle of debt.

In Mindanao, the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur were severely impacted by, first, the prolonged fighting in Marawi City; and then by Typhoon “Vinta” later that year. The storm and subsequent flooding washed away water kits that were distributed to displaced families. Lack of access to safe water increases susceptibility to disease, and has serious menstrual health implications for women and girls.

The Department of Health estimated that over 18,000 women in evacuation centers were pregnant or new mothers during the Marawi siege, many of whom had to be relocated to temporary shelters post-Vinta. Specialized support for pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as women and girls of reproductive age, tend to become less of a priority in emergencies, and this contributes to unwanted pregnancies, birth complications and increased risks of maternal and child deaths. Women, who are socially expected to be the primary caregivers, have the added burden of caring for the sick, including finding cash for medicine and hospital fees.

Time to reflect. These stories require collective reflection and call for a rethinking of traditional and masculinist notions of security as the default paradigm. A gender lens is needed. Recurring experiences of crises and displacement should be a wake-up call, particularly for political aspirants, that urgent legal reform and priority shifts are needed to ensure a context-by-context emergency response and recovery, instead of a one-size-fits-all framework.

Amplifying the voices of women and girls, especially those on the move for a safer and secure future, also means shifting from campaign rhetoric to action. It means ensuring that human rights are respected and protected during times of emergencies and beyond.

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Anna Kristina Dinglasan is the gender justice advisor and Patricia Miranda is the policy, research and campaigns advisor of Oxfam in the Philippines. Oxfam is an international confederation of 19 organizations working together with partners and local communities in more than 90 countries.

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TAGS: Anna Kristina Dinglasan, Gender issues, Inquirer Commentary, Patricia Miranda, women's rights
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