Actions You Can Take: Women Preparing for Disaster Recap

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By Marie Mortreux, Public Relations and Communications Intern

FEW’s March 2016 workshop focused on the role women can play in disaster preparedness in Japan. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, there has been an even more urgent need to sensitize individuals to take adequate steps in response to but also in advance of such disasters. The workshop was led by FEW member Sarajean Rossitto, who works as a coordinator for NGOs, while also working as a trainer and lecturer at Temple and Sophia universities. Her focus is at the individual level rather than on communities as she thinks making individuals aware can have a bigger impact on the long term.

There are still currently 200,000 recorded evacuees in Japan, which makes the Tohoku disaster an ongoing issue five years later. There has also been an increase in the number of disasters around the world partly because of climate change and urbanization, particularly in East Asia. Sarajean mentioned one of the major problems in the response to disasters in Japan is the lack of awareness about the importance of not only providing assistance after a disaster occurs but being prepared beforehand in order to mitigate the consequences. She also mentioned the inconsistent role of the media, which does not put enough emphasis on disasters.

The first focus of the workshop was on gendered perspectives and the different impacts of disasters.There are a wide range of people impacted who all have particular needs. For example, about 20 percent of the victims of disasters are pregnant women and require special care. Men and women are impacted differently by disasters and, as a result, women have different biological and physiological needs. Furthermore, women in crisis are more prone to violence. She emphasized that in terms of distribution of resources after disasters, men are most often in charge, which is a problem because men don’t always understand women’s specific needs. Women are often blamed for post-disaster violences rather than being seen as victims. Some women have even experienced being kicked out of evacuation centers. The creation of a text hotline for them to be able to express themselves anonymously is an example of one way to cope with this issue. Sarajean also stressed that people who were in charge of evacuation centers for Tohoku didn’t have adequate training. The men responsible for these centers also failed to provide a safe environment for women to sleep, change or hang their clothes and were reluctant to give private space for the victims of the disaster.

Another problem that came after the disaster is the increase in the number of sex crimes. Despite the general thought Japan is a safe society where children’s abuse don’t occur in opposition to developing countries, it actually does happen. As a result, there is a need to make women and children less vulnerable. Organizations such as Oxfam tried to help women get their business running. Unfortunately, Japan has the highest number of single mothers living in poverty. Free the Children Japan also took initiatives to connect Japanese children to overseas children so they would feel less alone.

In the second part of the workshop, Sarajean focused on proactive strategies to foster preparedness in prevention of disasters. While mitigation refers to studies which try to asses risks and the building of special infrastructures, every individual from a community can participate in helping prepare an adequate response to a disaster. Individuals with different roles can participate complementarily in the response. During the Tohoku disaster, many women died in their cars while on their way to pick up children, husband and elderly relatives to evacuate. The evacuation plan didn’t fit the reality of actions which would be undertaken by women during a disaster. As a result, there’s a need to have women participate in developing evacuation plans.

Sarajean then mentioned some of the steps in preparing for a disaster:

  • Assess the Risks
    • What type of disaster is likely to occur?
    • How could your home and community be impacted?
  • Preparing for Evacuation
    • Stockpiling goods
    • Readying the inside of the home/office
    • Readying the outside the home/office
    • Setting up a means of communication

She emphasized the importance of knowing how to evacuate depending on the location where one finds themselves when a disasters occurs. Most people will get panicky and aggravated when stuck on the subway or an elevator, so it’s important to increase one’s capacity to adapt and cope with unforeseen situation. 

The workshop helped attendees think about where they and their families are when it comes to disaster preparedness. We all left with a better idea of how we can be ready in the event of a disaster and the specific needs of our fellow women.