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Q&A: Disaster Resilience Starts with Grassroots Women


From left to right, Haydee Rodríguez, Violet Shivutse and Josephine Castillo. Credit: Julia Kallas/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 13 2012 (IPS) - Women and girls can be powerful agents of change, but they are disproportionately affected by disasters because of social roles, discrimination and poverty.

The International Day for Disaster Reduction on Saturday this year celebrates the theme of ‘’Women and Girls – the [in]Visible Force of Resilience’’.

IPS correspondent Julia Kallas sat down with three women – Josephine Castillo, grassroots community leader and organiser with DAMPA in Manila, Philippines; Haydee Rodríguez, president of the Union of Women’s Cooperatives, Las Brumas, in Jinotega, Nicaragua; and Violet Shivutse, leader and founder of Shibuye Community Health Workers in Kenya – to talk about the importance of girls and women as actors and leaders for resilience.

Q: You all come from very different backgrounds and contexts. Can you briefly talk about the main challenges you face in regard to building resilience in the community you live in?

JOSEPHINE CASTILLO: I am one of the board directors of my community’s association. It is a homeowner’s association, we have 421 community members and everybody owns their land since 1995. This is due to a successful programme that our association made with the national government, which provided women with mortgages to buy their houses.

We have programmes that bring our community together in case a disaster hits us. We train quick response teams with the collaboration of our local government and our resilience programmes have also a partnership with the Huairou Commission and GROOTS International.

In August, people affected by the floods in Manila were bought to our resettlement sites, which rescue families affected by flooding and earthquake. Natural disasters are happening more often because of climate change so we need to have climate adaptation, disaster mitigation and resilience programmes.

HAYDEE RODRIGUEZ: I am the president of the Union of Women’s Cooperatives, “Las Brumas” in Jinotega, Nicaragua, and we have created 20 grassroots women’s cooperatives with a total of 1,200 associated women and other 960 that are indirectly associated.

In our community we are facing a lot of difficulties with climate change and land ownership allocation. So through our resilience work we created a programme to cultivate food and medicine plants in the houses of our community as well as a programme to help build a better dialogue between community and government.

We have also succeeded in inserting grassroots women to participate in governmental parties. The next elections, which will take place on the 4th of November, have the involvement of 14 grassroots women inside of the parties.

VIOLET SHIVUTSE: When I used to work in an office that registered farmers, I came across lots of working pregnant women who were having problems giving birth. Most of them died during delivery, others had complicated births when the child died or the women had been sick for a long time after.

The main problem was to help and ensure that these women reached the local hospital, because the distance and the high cost of the services did not encourage them. Then I started thinking how we could help these women who are very important for the community. So that is how I started getting involved with community work and women’s health issues.

HIV/AIDS funds, food security, periods of drought and flooding are the biggest problems in my community. Water, sanitation and hygiene are also big problems for children in schools. When I realised these problems were rising, I brought grassroots women together to work on the development of our community. We started a community-based organisation called the Shibuye Community Health Workers, which today brings together 2,036 grassroots women in Kenya who work on these issues.

Q: Why is it important to focus on women and girls in the context of disaster reduction?

JC: Because women and girls are the most affected when it comes to disaster. They need to be prepared and trained. We don’t like to say that we are vulnerable, but we are. When we talk about resilience work we are not only talking about natural disaster. Lack of education also means disaster. Woman and girls cannot get jobs if they are not educated. That is also why women need to be involved in international conferences, to show our needs and fight for our rights.

HR: Women resilience work is important because we need to work for our lives and the lives of our community. Women need to work in resilience because if we do not take care of water, for example, there will be no cultivation and if there is no production, there is hunger.

VS: We believe that resilience starts with women. They are the ones taking care of the rural communities because men migrate to the urban areas to find jobs. So the impact of disaster for women and girls is very high. We encourage women to work in groups so they can understand how to build resilience. Resilience means having food in their houses, resilience means establishing food storages, resilience means identifying natural resources and protecting them. We also believe that it is important to teach our girls the importance of resilience work so when they become adults and mothers they can help their communities.

Q: What is the road to building efficient women-led resilience projects?

JC: It is important to have collaboration and partnerships with local government, institutions and organisations around the world. Also, local to local dialogue is very important. Organisations have to focus on more than one issue, because focusing in only one issue can burn them out, and if that issue is solved you have nothing else to work on. Our programmes came from our people, not from our funders.

HR: I believe we need to work on encouraging women to able to participate of decision making and leadership positions. Organisations should support and encourage women innovations by providing them with resources .Also, grassroots women should share their work and projects with other communities in order to help others developing resilient work too.

VS: First, we need to educate women and girls… because if they are not educated they cannot get involved in community work. Second point is to make women stronger politically and economically. Give them more value and equality within the work environment.

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