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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
The Gendered Terrain of Disaster: Through Women 's Eyes, Edited by Elaine Enarson and Betty Hen Morrow, Westport CT: Praeger Press, 1998 xiii, 275 pp.
Reviewed by Pamela S. Showalter, Department of Geography and Planning, Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos, TXÝ78666.
of The Gendered Terrain of Disaster: Through Women Eyes have several ambitious
goals. They attempt to address the disaster literature's general
paucity of information regarding the gendered terrain within which disasters
are experienced, offer workable recommendations to planners and practitioners
for incorporating women and gender issues into their work, provide researchers
with new directions for conducting studies and for utilizing and constructing
theory, as well as provide the general reader with ". . . a new perspective
on women's experiences, needs, and interests in disasters"
(p. xii). No matter your area of expertise, if you are engaged in efforts
to reduce the impact of disasters on humanity, this is an instructive
volume regardless of whether or not you have an interest in "gender
issues" per se.
introductory remarks, the book is separated into three sections, beginning
with an overview of the topic to reveal theoretical gaps and directions
as well as field-based themes. The second section addresses the social
construction of vulnerability vis-à-vis issues of age and poverty,
land ownership and family structure, domestic violence and community organization,
and how vulnerability is rooted in gender and national development. The
third section provides a number of case studies to support the volume's
thematic framework, and the book concludes with a chapter by the editors
that provides policy-oriented recommendations and research questions.
underlying premise is that, historically, US disaster research has largely
ignored the larger cultural and sociopolitical contexts within which disasters
are situated. There are a number of reasons why this has been the case,
but emerging support for analyzing hazard and risk in a structural context
is encouraging exploration of the issue of gender. Gender is an important
variable since it is clear that those living in poverty are more vulnerable
to disaster impacts and the majority of the world's poor (70%) are
women. Since disasters occur in gendered social systems and are addressed
by gendered disaster management programs, the editors argue that it is
imperative these constructs no longer be ignored if we wish to improve
the effectiveness with which we respond to extreme events.
I - Perspectives on Gender and Disaster - is launched by Fothergill's,
"The Neglect of Gender in Disaster Work: An Overview of the Literature,"
which is a review of over 100 studies addressing the issue of gender in
disaster. In the course of her review, Fothergill found it advisable to
replace the common "preparedness, response, recovery, mitigation"
mantra that guides most US disaster studies with the nine-point taxonomy
that follows, and wherein she made the following observations:
In closing, Fothergill advocates increased use of qualitative research methods to allow researchers ". . . to obtain a better understanding of women's lived experience in disasters, in the context of their specific situations" (p. 24).
is followed by Bolin, Jackson, and Crist's, "Gender Inequality,
Vulnerability and Disaster: Issues in Theory and Research." The authors
assert that lack of attention to women's experiences can be blamed
on out-of-date methodological and theoretical approaches as well as research
structured by funding agencies that do not encourage in-depth analyses
of social inequalities. They assert that the classic "event focus"
of most US disaster research is too simplistic, ignoring broader socioeconomic
forces occurring over time that can affect an area's (and its population's)
level of vulnerability. They assert that it is not sufficient to simply
incorporate into quantitative analyses queries that identity differences
between the sexes, for such an approach also fails to reveal social-structural
inequalities (e.g., economics, laws) that produce gender differences.
US disaster researchers are accused of largely ignoring decades of research
(e.g., language and discursive practices, human agency and subjectivity)
that other social scientists have embraced in their attempts to understand
social phenomena. While some disaster studies note that differences exist
between female/male response in a disaster situation, explanation of these
differences is rarely offered, and certainly not within the context of
understanding the way social inequalities account for the observed differences.
Bolin et al. also discuss problems with the commonly used "family
as system" approach, asserting that researchers and policymakers
must discard the notion of defining the word "family" as though
this entity exists only in terms of wife/husband roles and explore ".
. . the complex ways in which the conjunctural effects of gender, ethnicity,
culture, race, class, and age structure everyday family life in the context
of existing political and economic forces" (p. 33). They believe
US disaster researchers could learn from studies performed by Third World
scientists, which are described as being much more cognizant of the way
"historically situated political economic forces" (p. 36)
impact local culture, most notably where capitalism alters traditional
family structures by introducing wage labor that women have less access
to, which relegates women to the domestic sphere, and consequently increases
their vulnerability. The authors use famine disasters to inform their
discussion, and suggests US researchers could learn from Third World literature
how to: explore unequal distribution of power and resources in families,
stop assuming gender is unimportant, utilize qualitative analysis to add
explanatory depth to the commonly used quantitative survey instrument,
examine the role of social inequality, and explore women's experiences
across lines of class and culture. The policy implication of altering
the methodological framework is that expanded data would inform mitigation
efforts, helping to develop appropriate assistance programs that do not
exacerbate social inequalities.
paper of this section, Scanlon's "The Perspective of Gender:
A Missing Element in Disaster Response," provides a revealing (if
brief) discussion of gender-situated myths in relation to disaster. While
it was refreshing to learn of the heroism of women following the 1917
Halifax explosion, it was distressing to learn that gender bias not only
led a leading scholar of the time to omit all positive references to these
heroic acts of women from his papers, but also led him to omit any less-than-heroic
acts of men. Ultimately, Scanlon writes, "male-dominated response
organizations act on a view of society in which vulnerable women must
be superseded or managed by men or left to carry out traditional family
roles-roles that in fact add to their vulnerability" (p. 49). To
counteract this tendency, Scanlon asserts that as women play increasing
roles in initial disaster response they must acquire "new, nontraditional
skills" such as operating communication equipment and taking part
in search and rescue operations. The lynchpin for accomplishing this,
according to Scanlon, is that it is first necessary to free women from
having the sole responsibility of caring for families in times of crisis.
II - Social Construction of Gendered Vulnerability - begins
with Hoffman's, "Eve and Adam Among the Embers: Gender Patterns
after the Oakland Berkeley Firestorm," a compelling personal account
of her home's destruction by the fire and some fascinating observations
regarding how both genders retreated into "traditional" roles
in the fire's aftermath. Hoffman's mix of extremely readable
prose-"I was singed into a living laboratory where I could observe
the molecules of our society reaggregate from cultural atoms" (p.
61) - with more 'standard' social science terminology
such as "bilateral consanguinous kinship" (p. 58) is a tour
de force of writing skill.
Hoffman is no easy task, and Wiest's "A Comparative Perspective
on Household, Gender, and Kinship in Relation to Disaster," though
admirably researched, are informative but dry. However, Wiest's
assertion that the "natural, independent, self-sufficient, functionally
efficient, or even morally correct," nuclear family household does
not exist, and his categorization of the policy implications of attempts
by disaster personnel to reconstruct such households as ". . . demonstrably
sexist, ageist, classist, and racist" (p. 76) is compelling. Only
by using such 'in-your-face' terms are we likely to see disaster
preparedness and management personnel take notice and initiate efforts
to make necessary changes to improve their assistance to an affected population's
recovery by, for example, channeling food aid primarily through women
in both developed and developing countries.
and Ketteridge follow Wiest with, "Men Must Work and Women Must
Weep: Examining Gender Stereotypes in Disasters," where they examine
how "biological reductionism has implications, not only for how
lay men and women act in disasters, but also for organized disaster management"
(p. 81). As in several previous chapters, the public-private sphere model
of the spaces men and women generally occupy is found to frame the way
people expect others to respond to disaster (the authors acknowledge that
while many women participate in the public sphere it is often in such
a way that their participation is devalued or not validated). Traditional
disaster management as a top-down, male-dominated process has the capacity
to invade the private domain, leaving women in a particularly precarious
position. Women bear increased burdens during and long after a disaster,
but because these burdens occur in the private sphere (e.g., increased
child care, care of elderly, provision of basic necessities such as washed
clothes), their work often goes unrecognized and can even be exacerbated
because needs assessments are largely skewed to the public sphere. The
authors call for more "emotional first aid" to be made available
during and alter disaster, not only for women but for men and children
who have difficulty asking for such help. It is also argued that women
need to be part of any formalized emergency planning and disaster management
"Women and Postdisaster Stress," is addressed by Ollenburger
and Tobin in a study that, although relying on quantitative analysis of
a survey instrument, does not simply point out that differences exist
between women and men and their response to disaster, but also addresses
some of the underlying causes of these differences. Following exhaustive
analysis of the survey, the authors conclude that the multifaceted concerns
facing women after disaster (e.g., care taking for children and family
[including elderly members], employment, finances) cause them to have
higher levels of stress. This stress factor is also intertwined with age
since women live longer, leaving them even more susceptible to the impacts
of a disaster due to age-related health problems and lack of full mobility.
"Balancing Vulnerability and Capacity: Women and Children in the
Philippines," begins by outlining a familiar theme, that women (in
this case in Philippine society) are disadvantaged at the outset and a
disaster only makes their situation worse. The author provides some very
reasonable and workable suggestions to reduce the pressures on Philippine
women in disaster recovery situations, such as engaging older children
in daycare and collective activities, noting that "empowering children
empowers women" (p. 111). By making water, health, and sanitation
- problems that are usually categorized as female concerns -
a priority following a disaster, female stress will be reduced, leaving
them with more energy to address other issues such as improving response
to and management of disaster situations.
section's final paper, "Domestic Violence After Disaster,"
Wilson, Phillips, and Neal point out that increased instances of domestic
violence following disaster are predicated on preexisting conditions of
gender stratified social, economic, familial, and psychological oppression.
In association with this finding, the authors also state that the way
organizational personnel perceive the issue of domestic violence prior
to a disaster will generally be retained following an event. While they
were unable to empirically document the extent of post-disaster domestic
violence in the three cities they studied, they advise that intervention
programs need to be in place before an event, and their services uninterrupted
and possibly increased following disaster in order to reduce the possibility
of injury to and/or deaths of individuals who would otherwise not know
where to turn for help.
portion of the book resides in Part III - Case Studies of Women
Responding to Disaster. Eleven contributions cover a range of disasters
that occurred in Pakistan, Australia, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean,
and the US. The data are presented in a variety of forms, from fairly
conventional survey analysis concluding with bulleted lists of recommendations
and tables of policy strategies to unpretentious first-person accounts
concluding with thoughtful suggestions. While this leads to some inconsistency
regarding how much "data" can be gleaned from individual chapters
in this section, taken en toto one is struck by the consistency with which
the authors' call for women to be included in all phases of disaster
planning, response, and management, and for policy makers of all sorts
to be aware of socioeconomic and cultural processes that create, recreate,
and maintain female vulnerability.
conclusion - Toward Gendered Disaster Policy, Practice, and Research
- provides three "guideposts" the authors identify
as common threads running throughout women s disaster experiences, as
well as some thought-provoking ideas to develop new policy directions,
new practices for disaster organizations, and new questions for disaster
social science. It is here that I found the only noticeable shortcoming
of this volume, for I was looking forward to learning how the volume's
editors interpreted and summed up the preceding sections and chapters,
in re what they stated as their goal in compiling the book. For example,
I welcome Fothergill's expansion of the "preparedness, response,
recovery, mitigation" mantra which, from the day I entered this field,
struck me as rudimentary. There is also little doubt that historic methodologies
guiding disaster research were often too simplistic and quantitatively
based, so utilizing qualitative methods at least in conjunction with a
quantitative approach is preferred. What is still troubling, and as Bolin
et al. touch upon, is the notion that research structured by funding agencies
does not encourage in-depth analyses of social inequalities. This is an
issue that plagues researchers who desire to operationalize in-depth goals.
The time constraints we work under in the US model of academic research
appear to encourage rapid publication and/or presentation of preliminary
results rather than emphasizing the long-term, in-depth analyses. As a
case in point, few reading this review would argue, I believe, that the
number of conferences we hold in this country are too few!
While the summation that does take place is too subtle and brief to satisfV my curiosity, it in no way detracts from the overall value of this book to the field of disaster literature. I learned a great deal, finding data that confirmed my intuitive, and therefore unexpressed, ideas regarding differences in the ways women and men experience, deal with, and recover from disaster. As a woman, a geographer, and a disaster researcher, I have long been silently intrigued with the issue of gender in association with disaster response. This book presents data that confirms that women suffer disproportionately during all phases of a disaster and that their vulnerability is largely socially contrived, lithe goal of researchers, public policy makers, planners, managers, and responders is to positively and effectively impact as many people as possible through their efforts, it is only logical and fair that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Consequently, professionals need to place women at the forefront of their efforts. This book will help them to begin the process.