Connectivity will empower women in disaster risk management

Radio operators in Trinidad. Source: ITU.

In 1991, cyclones hit Bangladesh. 90 per cent of the 140,000 victims were women. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastates New Orleans. Most victims were Afro-American women and their children. In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic, women are at the forefront, again. What are these victims missing? Connectivity.

Why it matters. A range of barriers prevent women to protect themselves and to participate in disaster decision-making throughout the phases of a disaster risk management cycle. A woman's ability to access accurate information not only has a direct impact on her own survival, but also on her community, says a joint report published by the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC).

In the process of empowering women and girls, information is key. Digital technologies are critical tools in disaster preparedness, response and mitigation. With the right information, women could prepare for possible crises, respond quickly and recover faster and better. Moreover, digital gender divide is blocking women from assuming their rightful place as equals stakeholders in society, in contributing in a more active way and becoming leaders. As stated by the Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, during the 2020 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) High-level dialogue that followed the official launch of the report:

“The gap is not just an access gap. It’s about the skills. It’s also about educational issues. And women are underrepresented in the ICT sector.”

The digital gender gap is fueled by limited access to information and cash, but no only. It is also fed by limited engagement and participation in processes affecting women, limited opportunities for learning and perception of gender.

When disaster hits, victims are not only the beneficiaries of help. With the right tools, they can become the responders. It is thus crucial for women to create and use communication technology that is appropriate to them.

And acting fast is important, because the digital divide in favor of men has increased by 7% in developing countries and by 12.9% in LCDs between 2013 and 2019. It also reflects in a large gender gap in smartphone ownership. A challenged access to ICTs can be aggravated by financial constraints, availability of infrastructure, skills, interest in and perceived relevance of ICTs, concerns about safety and security, and socio-cultural and institutional contexts.

ICT solutions increase resilience. Telecommunication technologies, such as radio, television, hotlines, SMS or social media, are tools with which women can directly interact.

Let us examine one example cited by the ITU report. As smartphones are expensive, feature phones are often the communication device chosen by many in remote areas. Their SMS capability has helped many. This is why the Women in Uganda Network (WOUGNET) has used its toll-free platform to communicate with women by SMS. Official WHO information is translated into all local languages and shared by sending a text message to the women registered on the platform. As the platform has been used since 2000, it very naturally became the main communications channel to support rural women on COVID-19 matters.

Unintentional negative impacts. Better access to ICTs has consequences such as stereotypes, fakes news or potential violence mark the Internet, social media or traditional TV. This affects gender roles and inequality, can threaten vulnerable persons in the wake of disaster or violate fundamental rights as shown in the figure below.

Capture d’écran 2020-08-15 à 11.29.48.png
Source: ITU.

How do we change things. To make a difference, ITU recommends relying on existing frameworks and technologies, whilst defining more efficient and oriented strategies.

  • Principled foundations: embracing existing frameworks seeking to reduce the disaster vulnerability of women is a first step. The UN Resolution (A/74/381/Add.3) for example states that women and girls are “disproportionately exposed to risk, increased loss of livelihoods and even loss of life during and in the aftermath of disasters”. Governments should promote the “full, equal and effective participation and leadership of women ... in the design, management, resourcing and implementation of gender- responsive and disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction policies, plans and programs”. This is one of many examples.

  • Alliances and advocates. Internet and technology actors can help shaping a safer digital environment and the development of adequate infrastructures. The Internet Society for instance has a Special Interest Group dedicated to promoting a neutral space that encourages women to be involved in technology.

  • Stratified targets: not all women at risk are similarly situated. Culture, location, socio-economic profiles, availability and costs of ICT products and services can cause variations. From the first level of protection and access to basic information, they can engage and contribute, and then lead.

Source: ITU.

  • Strategies by ICT services: national policies are required to ensure radio and TV reach into most vulnerable areas. Cost of emergency messages should be waived on feature phones and Internet network build out in sensitive areas.

The bottom line. Action is and must continue to be taken on 3 levels. Disaster resilience will improve, if women can take protective measures to reduce the disaster risk, contribute to disaster risk management and ICT product life cycles and take leadership roles.

As the Chair of ETC, Enrica Porcari, stated in the WSIS dialogue:

“Communication tools should be brushes given to women to paint their own future of empowerment.”

Gender equality is not only a human necessity. It is a sustainable development requirement that impacts society as a whole.