October 13 marks the International Day for Disaster Reduction. On this day, we at USAID pause to reflect on everything done to prevent or reduce the damage caused by natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, droughts, and storms. This year, together with the international community, we pay extra attention to the role played by women and girls around the world to keep their loved ones safe from harm, not just today or tomorrow, but every day.
Women are often the ones in charge of safety both in the home and in the community. Whether making sure food and water are safe to consume, arranging the house so that dangerous items are out of reach or secured, or evacuating their families in advance of a powerful storm, women make critical decisions every day that help reduce disaster risk.
Some of this activity may go overlooked, but upon closer examination, women and girls prove themselves to be real-life action heroes all year round. Women are first responders, rendering first aid or making the decision to call for extra help. They are also teachers, sharing their knowledge with friends, neighbors, family members, and colleagues. No matter the risk, women are experts at building resilience within their communities, acting well in advance of an event and always thinking about long-term survival needs. They save money and other resources for the unforeseen challenges, whether prompted by an unpredictable earthquake or the slow onset of drought.
Here at USAID, we work hard to help ensure that women and girls are equals with men with respect to disaster risk reduction. Take for example Denelia Davis, Donnesha Hemmings, and Joy Stevens, active members in the USAID-supported St. Patrick’s Rangers youth organization in Kingston, Jamaica. Not only are they leaders among their peers, they are leaders in the community. On any given day you might find them promoting the cause of disaster risk reduction on the local radio, coordinating neighborhood clean-up campaigns to prevent flooding, or working alongside their male counterparts to repair and reinforce their elderly neighbors’ homes ahead of hurricane season.
Thousands of miles away in Niger lives Fati, a charismatic mother who embodies the spirit of hard-working women everywhere. She is determined to restore her community’s grazing lands, which have been decimated by repeated droughts, using simple yet innovative techniques to conserve water and re-grow grasses for her herds. She is also teaching her children how to care for the land so that her farm and community might thrive again.
Despite all of the instances of progress, however, the fact remains that women are still more frequently affected by natural disasters than are men. Why is this? Simply put, vulnerability and poverty are closely aligned with gender quality, and gender equality is still not a reality in many places. This is why USAID’s efforts to empower women and girls to participate in policy and project planning, design, and implementation are vital.
In southern Africa, one case in point involves USAID’s partnership with CARE and the African Centre for Disaster Studies at North-West University to empower teenage girls in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Lesotho. The project, aptly named Girls in Risk Reduction Leadership or GIRRL, helps adolescent girls identify the natural hazards and socioeconomic risks they face and then design ways to mitigate them. The girls learn first aid, fire safety, and effective communication skills while conducting risk assessments of their communities and helping to prepare for likely disaster events.
USAID is heartened by the prospect of these projects and will continue to seek to strengthen the capacity of women and girls to participate fully in all aspects of disaster risk reduction.