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Invisible Women: Examining women’s experiences in disaster interventions Professor Lena Dominelli University of Durham

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Presentation on theme: "Invisible Women: Examining women’s experiences in disaster interventions Professor Lena Dominelli University of Durham"— Presentation transcript:

1 Invisible Women: Examining women’s experiences in disaster interventions Professor Lena Dominelli University of Durham Email:


3 2004 Tsunami as the background Sri Lanka received humanitarian aid during one of the most devastating natural disasters to strike in recent memory. The tsunami of 26 December 2004 devastated lives and livelihoods in 12 countries, causing 300,000 deaths. Sri Lanka’s 40,000 were amongst these. Gestures of goodwill came from across the world in an unprecedented wave of humanitarian aid giving.

4 Research Questions on Sri Lanka Project Why were people motivated to give in a way not seen since, including in the devastation of the 2010 floods in Pakistan and Australia; or earthquakes in Haiti or Chile? Was the help offered what people in Sri Lanka needed or wanted? Are some models of humanitarian aid better than others? Can cross-country research be conducted in ways that enable local researchers to feel empowered and fully involved in the research process, especially when there are substantial hurdles to overcome including in culture, language, access to resources, and the research is initiated by external actors? How do local class, gender and ethnic relations impact on the aid received? How did the Sri Lankan civil war impact on the receipt of aid?

5 Research Methods An ethnographic approach was used to ensure that the voices of Sri Lankan recipients of aid were heard. The research began several years after the tsunami on 26 January 2009, enabling Sri Lankans in affected areas to reflect upon the aid they had received during the the tsunami and subsequently. Involving local researchers as equal partners in research activities was part of the commitment to empowering practices in research. One of these three was a woman.

6 Choice of research sites Aid giving is a contentious activity which has been accused of benefiting the donors more than the recipients (Hancock, 1991; Hoogvelt, 2007). Women’s concerns tended to be ignored (Pittaway et al, 2007). Choice of sites was guided by donors claiming to follow empowering practices that placed local people in control of events. This research was conducted between 2009 and 2012. It provided 386 transcripts (interviews and focus groups), 35 sets of field notes, and 45 questionnaires. Thematic analysis of data was conducted to prepare this paper.

7 Focus group meetings

8 Research methods used Methods used: Participant observation and conversations; Interviews of villagers, including residents, of all ages, village elders, and officials; Interviews of staff and students who provided aid in models that sought to place local people in control; Mapping exercise of NGOs; On-line survey; and 4 Focus groups.

9 Research teams The research project has involved: The Research Team: – PI based in Durham – CI based in Durham – Research Fellow based in Durham – Research Fellows based in Sri Lanka (3 originally, then 2, 1 always a woman) – Project Secretary based in Durham The Project Advisory Board consisting of UK based experts, experts from countries other than Sri Lanka or the UK, representatives from Sri Lanka

10 Invisible Gender Relations Gender issues tend to get ignored. What men do and what women do is socially constructed and linked to cultural expectations about what it is OK for men to do and what women must do. Gender issues tend to be configured around everyday life practices that are linked to women’s ordinary routines in caring for children, relatives and husbands, doing housework and cooking.

11 Findings Gender relations, though invisible are present as taken-for-granted assumptions amongst both donors and recipients. Exceptions are NGOs specifically targeting women. Obtaining aid was difficult for women who lost husbands.

12 Gender silence at all stages of disasters Phases in humanitarian aid giving: Immediate aftermath (glut of external agencies distribute food, water, medicines and shelter and leave fairly quickly). Recovery phase (short to medium term provision of financial resources, medical help, housing and psychosocial assistance). Long-term reconstruction and infrastructural development including capacity building (institutions and people). Transitions and ‘fit’ between phases are poorly thought out. Women are absent as active players in all these stages and miss out on aid entitlements unless they have advocates or form groups for action. Donors and recipients collude in this ‘gender silence’.

13 ‘In fishing villages women are in a lower position because men are very dominant.…In the south there have been these traditional beliefs where women are not supposed to be on a fishing boat. It will get polluted. They are not supposed to touch anything, so women were completely excluded….the domination that was built among men created many difficulties for women because alcoholism was very high. Men coming home from fishing in the morning. They drink and sleep. That’s all they do. Wife battering is very common’. Women in these situations seek to ensure that the family obtains what it needs. Cultural limitations on women’s roles

14 ‘Women and children were killed for social cultural reasons. I came across situations where women were almost saved and there was…a mother who was telling me that this girls was drowning and somebody gave her a hand to reach her. She was almost lifted and when she realized that she didn’t have any clothes on her body and she let the hand go and she let herself drown…Her feeling of shame was much stronger than the feeling of death’. Gendered cultural barriers are extremely powerful and difficult to change. Gendered expectations and choices disadvantage women

15 ‘She didn’t want to get married, she didn’t want to take a job in a garment factory which she has to because her husband drinks too much…and she’s got a small child…and she’s never there because she is always working in this garment factory and she wanted to get an education, she wanted to teach’. ‘The girls don’t play cricket on their own without female chaperones. They can’t, they won’t. So essentially what we’re doing is cementing the gender divide that already exists’. Women’s lives are constrained by social expectations. Gendered relations disadvantage women

16 ‘If men’s economic activities were hampered they are excused by society….Women are not excused by the society. They are supposed to do whatever…deal with the problems. They…take care of the household and the children’. Gendered division of labour is alive and well in disaster situations. Gendered caring relations

17 ‘Women were refusing to enjoy their life…Women were refusing to laugh even. They were feeling like how can we laugh because our people died. Our children died. This happened to us, we are not supposed to laugh’. Embedding gendered relations in cultural expectations in taken-for-granted everyday life routines makes them difficult to alter. Cultural constraints impact on all aspects of life

18 ‘I looked at the field of gender and disaster management I went to all the possible NGOs who had worked in these areas and I couldn’t get any report from any of the organizations with regards to that…and…it was women who were affected. Women’s husbands died…and the women didn’t have any way of surviving’. Highlighted by Enarson and Morrow in 1998 in the Gendered Terrain of Disaster, this was said by an aid worker in an interview in 2010. Women’s exclusion from managerial ranks

19 Gender relations include masculinity ‘Our boys were very good, they helped others who came to clear the dirt, bury the bodies, and clean the houses. Some of the young people had lost their boats and fishing things and they were sad. Some bad things also happened. Some of the boys got to drink arrack and began to fight. Some boys became lazy’. Masculinity frames community responses to these young men. Fishing is a male-dominated economic activity. Individual responses to disasters vary. Some are resilient and positive, others are destructive of communal harmony.

20 Gendering children ‘I feel that my daughter is better now, all her improvements are from the village pre-school. She participated in two pre-school concerts, she is not shy, she is better in English and she sings well, so all these came through the village pre-school….[T]his pre-school is improving, we have to protect it’. Gender relations are presented as someone to be cared for, and someone doing the caring when many children looked after themselves, exercising agency. The role of the women who do the teaching and support work is not commented upon.

21 ‘From a safety point of view, there were only two boys to share amongst thirteen girls…It was a remarkable difference to be walking down the street in a group of girls and to be walking with one of the boys because of the attention that you attracted as a white girl in Sri Lanka’. ‘We had a lot of girl-centric skills, maybe less of the active roles, like sports stuff that might have interested the guys’. Traditional gender relations are seen as the solution to this problem. Dangers for women aid workers

22 Sexual harassment of women aid workers ‘If you’re on a bus a lot of times…they would try and touch you and put their hands up our skirts and down your tops…they would stare at us…and made you feel really uncomfortable ….We wanted to come back to England just for that, just so the men weren’t perving on us’. ‘We slapped their hand and discouraged them…but we really didn’t say anything’. The sexualisation and abuse of women aid workers is seldom talked about.

23 Dangers for women aid workers ‘[She] had a relationship with a Sri Lankan boy…and had a real problem…he hit her on the face…they ruined the reputation of our project…they ruined the reputation of foreigners because Sri Lankans already have got the wrong idea about foreign girls’. Foreign aid workers are stereotyped and can be endangered as a result of others’ behaviour. There is a particular silence around such relationships.

24 Conclusions Internationalising practices can be complex contradictory. Observing local cultures, traditions and languages is crucial to aid processes, but may not help women. Unitary identities and traditional gender relations exclude women from all stages of disasters. Values involving equality and empowerment, are difficult to realise in practice across all groups and settings. Listening to women and children are important elements in aid giving and receiving processes. Capacity building for long-term sustainable development should be addressed at the beginning of humanitarian aid endeavours. Women should be involved in these from the word ‘go’ and throughout, including in the evaluation processes.

25 Suggestions for improvement More effective assessment of needs. Specific assessments for men, women and children. Clearer criteria around entitlements. More transparency at all levels. Better systems of resource allocation and distribution. Consideration of the long-term sustainability of initiatives from beginning of the humanitarian aid process. Monitoring mechanisms to ensure that all those needing help have received it and make sure that targets have been achieved. Locally driven processes and power-sharing between external and local donors are preferred. Humanitarian aid should be viewed as a constantly evolving, adaptable and resilient process, with women at its heart.

26 References Callan, H (1998) ‘Internationalisation in Europe’ in Scott, P (ed) The Globalisation of Higher Education. Buckingham: OUP. Dominelli, L (2010) ‘Internationalisation and Indigenisation’ in Sage Handbook of International Social Work. Enarson, E and Morrow, B (1998) The Gendered Terrain of Disaster: through Women’s Eyes. Miami: Florida International University. Hancock, G. (1991) Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. Hoogvelt, A. (2007) ‘Globalisation and Imperialism: Wars and Humanitarian Intervention’, in L. Dominelli (ed.) Revitalising Communities in a Globalising World. Aldershot: Ashgate. Knight, J (1997) ‘Internationalisation of Higher Education: A Conceptual Framework’ in Knight, J and De Wit, H (eds) Internationalisation of Higher Education in Asia Pacific Countries. Amsterdam: EAIE. Lyons, K., Manion, K., and Carlsen, M. (2006) International Perspectives on Social Work: Global Conditions and Local Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


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