For a more resilient world, promote women's leadership - expert

  • By Megan Rowling
  • 08/03/2017

Young women help lead a disaster drill in Bangladesh. TRF/Laurie Goering

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NEW ORLEANS - Understanding better how women are affected by disasters, economic shocks and other crises is key to helping their communities ride out pressures including climate change, a top resilience expert says.

But putting them in the driver's seat to deal with the problems is equally crucial, she said.

Sundaa Bridgett-Jones, senior associate director with The Rockefeller Foundation, said women are often resourceful in finding ways for their families to bounce back from disasters.

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, researchers found many women started projects to earn a living after losing their men to the disaster, she said.

More women should be given leadership roles in efforts to reduce future risks, she said from New York in an interview.

"There is a lot more that can be done," said Bridgett-Jones, who leads on international development and gender equality for the New York-based foundation.

She said more efforts to understand shocks and stresses from a woman's point of view are "greatly needed".

Women's vulnerabilities can be different from those of men. For example, women may be less mobile or constrained by family duties.

But they also have different perspectives and different ways of dealing with problems that can improve how communities react, researchers say.

Bridgett-Jones cited the example of India's Mahila Housing SEWA Trust, which is helping women from slum communities in South Asian cities cope with climate risks, including heat waves, flooding, water shortages and diseases.

Its members have collected their own data to better understand risks, and used that to devise solutions such as installing green roofs and walls to lower temperatures, harvesting urban rainwater and using solar energy.

In her experience with networks the Rockefeller Foundation has built to boost resilience around the world, Bridgett-Jones has seen how women working on the issue are "energised by the notion of, 'How do we do change differently?'".

"Whether you're talking about how many women are on the board of an institution or how many women are engaged in issues at the community level, you certainly have a different lens on that problem and what the solutions might be" when women are involved, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Bridgett-Jones said she hoped a Rockefeller Foundation-backed programme to get at least 100 women heading Fortune 500 companies by 2025 - up from around a quarter of that now - would also foster new "thinking about resilience", including ideas about how to protect supply chains from disasters.

TACKLING INEQUALITY

For the past decade or so, the Rockefeller Foundation has funded a push in both developed and developing countries, through new and existing organisations, to promote the notion of resilient cities and communities.

The foundation defines resilience as the capacity of individuals, communities and systems to survive, adapt and grow in the face of stress and shocks - and even transform themselves.

Bridgett-Jones said the concept was now well-understood and the debate had moved on to "some of the big questions", such as how to effectively include women, young people and other marginalised groups, as well as how to assess resilience.

A review of recent research, carried out by the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI), found growing evidence that promoting gender equality can enhance resilience. The ODI study said fewer organisations now point to women as "victims" of climate change and disasters, and instead highlight the structural inequalities impeding women's efforts to make themselves, their families and their communities more resilient.

Bridgett-Jones said special attention should be paid to situations where community efforts to build resilience are hindered "because they have standards and norms and practices that limit women".

Progress, however, is being made in thinking about the social aspects of more common resilience work, such as building roads that can better withstand climate change, she said.

The Asian Development Bank, for example, is now asking questions when it makes multi-million-dollar investments about whether new infrastructure will benefit women's incomes as well as men's.

Ensuring women's access to resources - from finance to information, and even channels to come together and talk - is an important consideration for future work on resilience, she said.

"All of those things matter," she added.

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