Vulnerability, faith and hope
You all remember the dramatic footage. Women about to deliver babies are ferried on stretchers through the flooded streets and “loaded” onto waiting trucks or buses. In evacuation centers, reporters make a beeline for the mothers hovering over infants, frantically fanning away mosquitoes and flies, while the babies lie in a fretful sleep amid—I imagine—the constant noise, the rain and the damp, and the play of other children.
One mother interviewed in an evacuation center was surrounded by a mini-barangay of children, many of whom, it turns out, were among her family of 10. The mother was recounting her difficulties in finding bathing facilities for her family, while I could only gape at the sight of her surrounded by her offspring. Why do you have 10 children in the first place? I wanted to ask her.
Anyway, these sights simply underscore the particular vulnerabilities of women—and the children who depend on them—during disasters. But aside from dramatic footage and human-interest interviews, women hardly figure in the planning, implementation and funding of rescue and rehabilitation projects. Indeed, there is little recognition in official circles that women, men and children have different needs, and that a “one-shot” approach will not only benefit only the visible and outspoken, but will also ensure that those most vulnerable will end up the most ignored, if not forgotten.
Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) Chair Remedios Rikken points out that all around the world, women have been shown to be at greater risk of death, disability and illness during calamities. Research over the years by the Global Gender Climate Alliance (GGCA), says Rikken and PCW Executive Director Miyen Verzosa, “reveals more women die during natural disasters,” with the GGCA putting the estimate of deaths at four females for every one male. The key to creating climate-resilient communities, they said, “is the two-pronged approach of involvement of women and other vulnerable groups, and the local governments’ willingness to share accountability, which includes transparency in the availability and use of funds.”
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Rikken points out that “the sensitivity of local governments, rescue teams, civil society organizations and individual volunteers to the specific needs of women and girls matters even more now after disaster has struck.”
Verzosa emphasizes that those involved in relief operations, particularly local governments, should watch out for the special needs of women, especially of pregnant women and their children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. “Relief good donations should include women’s personal hygiene needs such as sanitary napkins and underwear. Evacuation centers should prioritize privacy for women’s comfort rooms and safety against gender-based violence.”
Women should be involved even before disaster strikes, adds Verzosa. She calls on local officials to find permanent evacuation sites for those living in disaster-prone areas and explains that “even in relocation, planners should involve women and really listen to them.”
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Even as we Filipinos struggled to survive and prevail over the floods, in the United States women religious waged their own struggle, trying to come to terms with a recent “doctrinal assessment” conducted by the Vatican and its appointed bishops of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the dominant grouping of Catholic women religious in America. Even as they met to formulate the right and proper response to this action, Sr. Pat Farrell, president of the LCWR, in her address offered words that give us, the Filipino faithful, a greater understanding of the workings of faith and faithfulness, particularly in the light of the struggle over the passage of the Reproductive Health bill.
Sr. Helen Graham, a Maryknoll nun who sent me Sister Pat’s address, says she wishes the address in its entirety would be published instead of just excerpts which are then misinterpreted. I have to ask her indulgence as I don’t have enough room, but I offer these excerpts for inspiration and reflection.
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“St. Augustine expressed what is needed for civil discourse with these words: ‘Let us on both sides lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then, only will we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there be no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.’
“In similar vein, what would be a prophetic response to the larger paradigm shifts of our time look like? I hope it would include both openness and critical thinking, while also inspiring hope. We can claim the future we desire and act from it now. To do this takes the discipline of choosing where to focus our attention. If our brains, as neuroscience now suggests, take whatever we focus on as an invitation to make it happen, then the images and visions we live with matter a great deal. So we need to actively engage our imaginations in shaping visions of the future. Nothing we do is insignificant. Even a very small conscious choice of courage or of conscience can contribute to the transformation of the whole. It might be, for instance, to decide to put energy into that which seems most authentic to us, and withdraw energy and involvement from that which doesn’t. This kind of intentionality is [what is known as] active hope. It is both creative and prophetic. In this difficult transitional time, the future is in need of our imagination and our hopefulness. In the words of the French poet Rostand:
“‘It is at night that it is important to believe in the light; one must force the dawn to be born by believing in it.’”
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