Virginie Le Masson
Sheri Lim
Mirianna Budimir
Jasna Selih Podboj
Publication Date
November 1, 2016

Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

"Post-disaster contexts are often characterised by the aggravation of discriminatory norms, social inequalities and gender-based violence, particularly against women and girls. Disasters cause suffering and damage but they also provide opportunities for those affected to transform the way they live, from assuming new responsibilities to voicing their rights and interests."

This working paper from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) explores the impacts of disasters on power relations and gendered norms and discusses how resulting changes in social relations affect people's resilience. By highlighting knowledge gaps, the authors aim to better understand why and how resilience programming can integrate social dimensions of vulnerability, including the risk of violence, and foster more equal power relations.

This paper aims to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the impacts of disasters on gender relations, equality, and gendered norms? Selected key points from the report:
    • A number of organisational, institutional, and political actions occur in the aftermath of a disaster that are opportunities to challenge power structures - in particular, the generation of knowledge. Studies that provide empirical evidence on positive and long-lasting shifts of power (i.e. where power dynamics change to better recognise and support the need and voice of marginalised people) are scarce. These kinds of changes are often only uncovered through in-depth, qualitative and longitudinal research and observations from development practitioners interacting with communities they work with on a daily basis.
    • Despite the "window of opportunity" created by disasters to change societal structures, the literature suggests that people's traditional roles are re-emphasised, and gender inequalities often worsen after an emergency. Studies document the harmful impacts of disasters on social relations across every contexts; however, it is the combination of disaster impacts and the failure of protective systems (often unavailable in the first place) which aggravate gender inequalities such as violence against women and girls (VAWG). One negative coping strategy observed in CARE programming in Ethiopia is families taking children out of school in order to help with household labour in response to the reduction of livestock. Droughts typically result in high absenteeism of girls, who are asked to help with collecting water and caring for other family members or who are sent out to work as domestic maids. In Haiti, women living in camps after the earthquake in 2010 coped with male-dominated committees controlling aid distribution, which often forced them to negotiate through the use of sexual favours in order to meet basic needs and obtain access to supplies.
    • There is little information about the impact of migration on men and women post disaster, and even less on children and adolescents. Disaster-induced displacement and migration are likely to impact those left behind in terms of their roles, network support, and opportunities. What displacement means for women and girls left behind in terms of their roles and opportunities, but also implications for potential shifts in power structures, needs further attention.
    • It is widely recognised that data on gender-based violence (GBV) is under-reported, although research shows that violence increases after a disaster. "[W]hether or not disaster events increase the occurrence of violence, the fact is that GBV survivors are unlikely to seek help..., protection support might be unavailable or inadequate, and this discrepancy between the prevalence of violence and the lack of protection is exacerbated in the aftermath of a disaster. The overall limited institutional systems in place to prevent and respond to GBV as evidenced in countries like Samoa, Bangladesh and Myanmar reinforces the need for multi-stakeholder approaches to tackle GBV..." Pre- and post-disaster vulnerability and capacity assessments should systematically consider the many dimensions of violence - not just sexual and physical violence, but verbal and emotional abuse, intimate-partner violence, trafficking, child marriage, and female genital mutilation - for emergency responses to really support those most affected.
  2. Why should transformative resilience tackle unequal gendered norms? The resilience literature highlights the opportunity for transformation after a disruption such as a disaster. In summary, societies affected by a crisis may demonstrate their resilience by transforming their functioning structure rather than maintaining the conditions that led to their societal vulnerability to disaster risks in the first place. A resilience building project has to address social exclusion and denial of people's rights, particularly when vulnerability assessments gather evidence of GBV. If resilience programmes ignore gendered norms and the occurrence of VAWG, and if perpetrators of GBV are supported to maintain their roles and activities prior to the disaster, there is little chance that imbalanced power relations will change.
  3. What do these findings mean for resilience programming? There is evidence of success in increasing resilience when gender-sensitive approaches are adopted. When working with Syrian refugees in Jordan, for example, CARE focused on protection and GBV systematically through capacity-building on prevention of GBV for all those involved in their programmes, ensuring that refugee women, girls, men, and boys were consulted during programming. As described here, engaging men in vulnerability and capacity assessments ensures that transformation is long-lasting and can result in more equal opportunities for women and men to enhance their resilience. In Ghana, CARE also worked with both women and men to understand climate risk and the vulnerability of their traditional farming practices. The programme has been helping farmers identify crops that are more stable economically and more climate sensitive whilst taking into consideration gendered norms, to support households develop new ways of coping that are sensitive to changing gender roles, and foster resilience in a transformative way.

As noted here, while emergency responses that focus on protection can support those most at risk of violence, a resilience perspective provides a more intricate, multilevel, and multifaceted approach that has the potential to tackle the underlying causes of GBV and vulnerability to disaster risks. A transformative resilience approach calls for equal attention to GBV at both household and community levels, as well as to the social and institutional contexts that condone, promote, or mitigate violence.

Recommendations for future research are offered. For example, more qualitative, comparative and longitudinal research is needed to document how households and communities' adaptive risk strategies have the potential to transform gender relations and social norms, in which contexts, and under which circumstances. Future studies should also address the lack of awareness and reporting of GBV against boys, men, gay men, lesbian women, and transgendered individuals.


ODI website, March 14 2017. Image caption/credit: "Tents provided by the Government of Japan serves as temporary shelter for families in Barangay Candahug, Palp, Leyte, Philippines, following Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) © Asian Development Bank 2013 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0