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Gender inequality becomes lethal in natural disasters where women die in far greater numbers than men. Patriarchal systems often leave women responsible for children and elderly people in a disaster and exclude women from accessing information that could save their lives. We speak to Melissa Bungcaras, Gender and Resilience Manager for ActionAid Australia, about how and why women should take a leading role in disaster preparedness planning and how aid agencies and governments both have a role to play in reducing the gender gap.



Melissa Bungcaras is the Gender and Resilience Manager for ActionAid Australia. She is currently managing a portfolio of programs across the Asia-Pacific focused on women’s resilience to climate change and disasters, and drives policy advocacy on climate justice and women’s leadership in emergencies. Melissa has over 10 years’ experience in international development and environmental management, primarily in the Asia Pacific region.

Learn more about Melissa


Gender inequality is such a huge part of why women are the most affected during disasters.

Is there any point in risk reduction plans that include women when it's part of a bigger problem, patriarchal systems where women don't have the same rights and access.

Governments do need to think about social services, and women's access to services at the community level that can support them to reduce that burden of unpaid work.

It's often just about opportunity isn't it? Small opportunity that opens the door and suddenly people are very self-reliant.

We see women are missing out on very vital things that they need after disasters, because they haven't been included up front in the preparedness.

Welcome to Conversations in Development, a podcast about foreign aid, development and social change. I'm Olivia Rosenman and I'm here with Peter Mason, my co-host and the CEO of the international development agency Cufa.

Hi Olivia.

And in this episode we're talking about climate change, disasters resilience, and women with Melissa Bungcaras, who is the gender and resilience advisor of the ActionAid Australia. Melissa thank you so much for joining us on Conversations in Development.

Thanks so much Olivia and Peter.

Melissa you've worked for over 10 years in the field of climate change adaptation, focusing especially on women's resilience to climate change and disasters. Now, the term disaster risk reduction or DRR is well known within the development sector, but for those not familiar with it, what exactly does it mean?

It's really about looking at how people can assess their vulnerability as well as the exposure and the risks that they face in terms of the potential for disasters, so often what we're talking about is looking at the hazards people face in their communities and the work that I've done is very community based. So, looking at what kind of hazards they are facing and what they can do to (a) I guess reduce the exposure to those hazards, but then also thinking about their vulnerability, and how they can make changes in their lives to address their vulnerability so that they are in essence not going to face a disaster in the future. This term has been defined by the United Nations UNISDR, which is the secretariat for disaster reduction.

It's not so much trying to avoid typhoons, or earthquakes or cyclones or volcanoes erupting, they are going to happen regardless. What we're trying to do is actually reduce the disaster that occurs from those events.

So it's preparedness?

We use that word a lot more actually than the DRR would because it is a very buzzy kind of international development word, and certainly in the work that I do with the communities, we talk more about preparedness but I think it's beyond preparedness as well, and so it's also about addressing vulnerabilities and looking at some of those structural issues.

Can you define vulnerability. I mean when you're saying addressing vulnerability, how does that interplay with preparedness?

I think the best way to think about that is perhaps with an example, women are one of the most vulnerable groups and this is in terms of poverty as well as disasters, and the impact disasters have. Women are most vulnerable for a range of different reasons, and the term vulnerable here means that it places them in a heightened risk in that situation over men. For example, I guess to give you some examples of why women might be more vulnerable, there's a range of different things, but it could include things like the burden of unpaid work, which again is another little tag word we use sometimes, but it basically refers to domestic work, and the fact that women don't get paid for any of this work.

Child care, domestic household chores in the many countries we work in, women also doing water collection, they are doing some basic kind of community gardening, all that comes with no income attached but, which is unpaid work that they are expected to fulfil. And by doing this, what it does is takes them away from the broader society, where they could benefit from the preparedness work or initiatives that are occurring in their communities.

I'm aware that women and girls die in greater numbers in the extreme disaster events. Women have this great burden of unpaid labour, but why does that then translate to them dying in greater numbers in disaster events?

I can give you another example here that might be useful, thinking about some of the major disasters that we've seen in South Asia, and thinking about the cultural context there. In terms of gender relations, women are obviously most responsible for child care and for caring for elderly, so my colleagues in Bangladesh shared stories after a cyclone that occurred there, Cyclone Mahasen, which is probably about what's getting close to 10 years ago, but what happened during that cyclone, was that many women stayed at home to care for people who are unable to be evacuated during the cyclone, because that was their role in the community. What we saw was that women were more adversely affected in that situation, and many more women often die because they are placed in a position where they're at a higher risk of getting killed.

In that situation, it's also those gender roles, many women also just didn't know about the opportunities to evacuate, because they've never actually been able to leave the home. Their gender role is to care for their family, care for their relatives. There's also social exclusion within the culture in South Asia. It's commonly known as purdah in that region, so women feel that they have to stay and that placed them at undue risk. It even goes to things like livestock, so cows are very valuable in that region, and so women would actually stay behind to look after cows, or if they had jewellery in their home, they would often stay behind because there was valuable items that were buried under their houses or something like that.

And I think we see women often missing out on very vital things that they need after disasters, because they haven't been included up front in the preparedness, and then when it comes to relief and things like that women often don't get the things they need, which could be as simple as a safe place to sleep. Women face you know huge risks around violence during and after disasters, and so having somewhere safe, a safe space is critical to think about.

Related to that is there any point in risk reduction plans that include women when ... As you've observed it's part of the bigger problem of patriarchal systems, where women don't have the same rights and access to community and to communications.

Yeah, it can feel a little bit ... We can't do anything to change this, but I think it's like with the word development you know you're always going to come up against different attitudes or norms that are challenging to progressing your agenda whatever that may be. In this situation what we say is, empowering women is utterly critical to so many different things within society, and we do want to transform those gender relations, even though patriarchy is a huge problem in many countries, and we haven't solved it here in Australia, I'm sure.

It doesn't mean you don't do it, so when it comes to preparedness, planning those plans are often formulated in a way that doesn't really get to the core of the issue for women. It often talks about inclusion and women's participation, or even just consideration of women's issues but it really doesn't go to the core issue, which is women actually need to be leading the development of these plans. And you need to do that by empowering women and giving them the confidence to go into those spaces.

But surely there's also an element of the educating the men within those communities. I mean that I would imagine is the first step almost, to open up that space for women to be included or not necessarily?

Not in our experience. Men always come up. It’s always something we get asked about. How are you bringing men into this, because it's not going to change unless men's attitudes change, but actually it's the women who change the men's attitudes. You really need to get the women convinced first, and there are women who aren’t convinced. They don't buy into it, and they're not sure that they can actually change anything. It's a bit fatalistic, that's just the way it is.

This is how it's always been, but really what we need to do is start to get women to believe in them themselves and actually get them to then go out and say, "Well I have a right to be in this space, my voice needs to be heard." And then start to challenge the men in their lives about that as well.

Sorry, I wasn't implying that men had to open up that space for women...

No, no, no.

But what I was implying was it's a two prong approach, where on the one hand yes you absolutely have to empower women to open up that space for themselves, but you also have to educate the men to understand the importance and the impact that this will have on their quality of life as well.

Yeah often we bring the men in a little bit later, that's probably ... And so bringing the men in a little bit later, it means that we've already built women's confidence to a certain degree, and they feel confident to be able to engage with men, and then you can bring them in and that's where you see a productive kind of relationship start to build in terms of negotiating how the new normal might look, in terms of it gender relations in that community.

Peter I'm interested ... You work with micro enterprises, helping families or individuals to establish those in developing countries, that might have traditionally been seen as a male space. Do you find that you need to encourage and educate women in their abilities and give them the confidence kind of like Melissa mentioned to believe that they have the ability to operate in that way?

I'm very suspicious of generalising, for example we worked in Sri Lanka after the tsunami and we worked through a women's co-operative. About eighty thousand women and they were actually the first people out in the streets et cetera, after the tsunami with blankets and caring for those that had been displaced, or needing assistance. So, I'm very careful to generalise across the region, even country to country because I think that circumstances change. Would you agree?

Absolutely yeah, and within countries as well. Context is critical...

Is everything, I just want to be really careful that I don't generalise, but certainly from an economic perspective, women that we work with tend to be on unpaid work. Working farms, doing all of those things that are not paid for, and having that time to actually engage in the work that we do. For example most of the community banks that we set up, most of the governing committees are women. Most of the people that operate those savings banks and community banks are women. Again because the men theoretically are off doing paid work, but in saying that, they also tend to be controlling of the household budget as well, and tend to be a lot more prudent in their expenditure, which is one of our key messages.

And that's what we were talking about before in terms of their work and their influence tends to be underestimated. We see this in the economic space, the women have huge influence, but it doesn't necessarily get recognised in public space.

Yeah absolutely and I think, we talk about women's confidence, but it's their agency as well and I think that's a really good point. I won’t generalise again not all women have access to the economic resources, but where they do it's really critical that we actually engage them and recognise that, and I think a lot of people don't and a lot of men in those communities don't recognise that role that women play, and it's undervalued by those communities. Paid labour is always more valued in those communities as well, and unpaid work that women perform, has very little value. I mean we can talk about the globally can't we?


And look those little things all add to the bigger picture around how patriarchy suppresses women's voices, suppresses women's rights and excludes them from these decision making structures that are so critical for their survival, when there is a disaster.

Maybe you can tell us a little bit ... What a disaster preparedness plan looks like?

We like to think of it in a bit of a two pronged approach. Disaster Risk Reduction is very much about preparing for those potential hazards, and starting to think about how that might affect people. It could be things like early warning systems, a great example from one of the countries we work in, the Philippines during Typhoon Haiyan a few years ago, women there quickly evacuated to a cave and were able to survive. With our support, ActionAid formalised that a little bit more, so they've created a women led preparedness plan. And part of that is how they will evacuate to the cave because they realise that was a valuable place to hide in that type of event, but it also meant that they had to think about what other hazards we might face as well. It's not just typhoons in our region. We have issues with earthquakes, climate change risks such as rising sea levels along our coast lines, storm surges, those types of things.

The plans themselves look at all of those different elements and help them think about, "What are our contingencies in this situation?" and then how do we actually go about implementing that in the event of emergency. How do we let women know and other families know that it's time to evacuate? Do we go around with a loudspeaker? Or do we knock on everyone's door? What's the best way? Do we send text messages if they've got phones? It's really about going through all of those steps and also identifying everybody in that community who needs to evacuate, it's something that's really important to highlight is that women and their families are made up of lots of different people, and there are people with disabilities, there are people who are older, and less mobile.

There are people who are excluded from a lot of different things ... Particularly in the Philippines people who have different gender identity, so mapping out the community and making sure that those who are most at risk are also those that get the information early.

That's interesting when you started to frame what that looks like, you talked about what they were already doing. So, a lot of your plans including that voice of what's already going on, does it include you learning off them, as much as them learning off you?

I think a really important thing about ActionAid's approach is we take a human rights based approach. What we do is really listen to the communities and work from them, their base, and the first element of our human rights based approach is empowerment, and it's about them recognising that they already have the information, they already have the knowledge they already have the capacity and ability to actually be able to address these issues. We can provide some support, we can provide some training, some technical knowhow facilitation to make these things happen, but it's all there. They know what they're doing. We do find that and all of the solutions come from the women and the communities that we work with, and we certainly don't place any expectations around what they should be doing.

In doing that, is that part of the process of raising women's voices up and empowering them? Because they can value their existing knowledge?

It's so built into that process, ensuring women are a part of that process is actually them having a voice and realising that what they know, and what they are able to share in terms of life experience and the knowledge they've gathered, it's valuable not just to them but to all of the women and even more broadly to the whole community. I think what we see with women that we work with is that process of joining other women. The empowerment is individual but then it's a collective empowerment as well.

It creates that momentum for them to move forward and to actually start to have the influence in the community as well. I remember meeting one woman, she had a disability and her husband left her because of her disability, she just had a disability with her legs, so she wasn't very mobile. He left her with two children and went to his mistress, and she had to survive on her own with a disability. She was amazing she was sitting there tailoring, she'd been able to ... I think she started with chickens, and then she went ... It might have been a mango tree or something like that, and then she earnt enough money that she was able to get chickens and then she was able to save up enough to get a cow, and then with the cows she was able to save enough to get a sewing machine. Now she had a tailoring business, and her husband had come back and she was very happy because he could chase the chickens.

It's often just about opportunity isn't it?


Just a small opportunity that opens the door and suddenly people are very self-reliant. We find that in our livelihoods programs. It's just a small opportunity, and then suddenly off they go. They can run with that small opportunity.

That's right, and I think those women's groups are so critical in terms of organising women, because she got support through that, to be able to have a house. They knew the challenges she was facing, and the women all said, "If there is any support that comes to our community, you will get a house." That was the priority having shelter was just ... It was that balance between falling over the wayside or taking these incredible path.

Yeah, again it's a story. I mean there's so much negativity in the Australian public about our aid budget, but it's these stories that show that it's good value.

Oh absolutely.

The work that's going on that never gets heard about in the public space, this is the bread and butter of what we do every day.

Yeah absolutely.

It's such a shame, we were good at doing the work, but we are just not necessarily...

We are not very good at selling it are we?

We are not really good at communicating all the great stuff that happens.

And I think there's other problems too. I think there's a big problem with media and it's only getting worse and that people are aware of Australian Aid going in after disasters, after big cyclones whatever and you see pictures of Australian aid packages, but you don't see those everyday aid stories.

Often the money doesn't go towards those every day stories either, so if you look at the break down of the aid budget DRR doesn't really actually get funded particularly well.

Oh really?

Yeah and that's a point of advocacy that we have, is that something like every dollar you spend on DRR would save you ... I think it's around $14 in humanitarian response. It's far easier for the government to sell its aid program on the back of a disaster, than before a disaster.

It's a very good point actually. I didn't actually frame it that way, but you're right, they'd much rather show the aid packages going over there...

They get their logo going everywhere...

Women, they've traditionally been excluded from a lot of these plans. What are the strengths that they bring when they do get involved in making these preparedness plans?

It's no different to what a lot of other people would bring in that space. The unique things that we say at the community level when women are involved, obviously they understand the needs of the community really well. They're well connected, they know the neighbours, they know who's got kids in this age group, they know who needs additional help, so their understanding of the community and its dynamics is far more, I guess innate in some ways. That connectedness is really valuable, and they also have those networks that allow them to communicate information really rapidly within their communities.

Those types of things can be really useful in terms of preparing for emergencies, but I think also women have a lot of empathy, when they look at the way that we want to prepare for a disaster, they do think about the most vulnerable in their communities and make sure that their voices are also being heard. And that any kind of response after an emergency or a disaster is really tailored to those people as well, so that they’re not being excluded.

What do you think that aid organisations, both NGOs and government aid organisations are doing well in terms of preparedness, and after disasters? And what are they not doing enough of?

I think what we're seeing, and certainly I can bring some of the international policy context in here as well is that, there's a lot of discussion about women's leadership in this space now. Earlier this year in Mexico, the global platform on disaster risk reduction, which is the first really big conference since the Sendai framework was introduced in 2015. It's the big ... It's led by UNISDR, it's signed up to by all of the UN states around the world, so with talking governments here and essentially it provides that map, and a bit of a plan I guess, in terms of global governance. How we should be addressing disaster risk. It's got seven targets, things like reducing mortality, reducing economic losses, but it also goes into some detail about women's leadership, which is a really positive development in that space, and something that we, ActionAid, has been lobbying for quite a few years.

That language is starting to permeate into national planning, and hopefully we'll see that slowly permeate down into sub national and local level preparedness planning as well. But I guess what we're not saying is the power dynamics, that really are structurally affecting women being addressed through those systems and governance kind of structures. And I think what ActionAid wants to see is, women getting recognition for their role but also getting recognition that gender inequality is such a huge part of why women are the most vulnerable, and why they are the most affected during disasters, and that also can be something that excludes them from stepping into leadership as well.

I think also NGOs and international sector actually, we need to practice a little bit more what we preach, and gender inequality is not just something that's affecting the communities we work with. I think it's prevalent across the whole system, and certainly we see a lot of all male panels still at these big conferences, and there's a lot to be done in terms of addressing gender and really addressing those structural issues.

We know a lot of work that's going on at the grassroots level throughout civil society, but what role do these governments in each of these countries play in changing those structures? Because as you say, a lot of NGOs are doing a lot of work on the ground, but I don't see a lot of leadership from the government.

Yeah and that's really true, and for example we really picked up on one theme recently for advocacy at the global platform, and that was the burden of unpaid work that I mentioned earlier. And I think there are things that governments can do to really address some of the barriers that women face to stepping into a leadership position at the community level. Even though the disaster risk reduction community doesn't talk about these very much, there's a lot of linkage into the broader development agenda and governments do need to think about social services, and women's access to services at the community level, that can support them to reduce that burden. Because often, women don't have a lot of time, they're caring for multiple children, they're doing the domestic work, and they’re also walking long distances for water in some cases.

I mean, it varies obviously for each individual, but for some women they would flatly refused to participate in any kind of decision making structure around their preparedness, because they just don't have the time. And in many cases they also don't have the money. They don't have the access to financial resources to be able to travel to the next village. Those kind of things I think government can definitely play a role in supporting women to reduce that burden, and perhaps freeing up some time for them to actually be able to be more active in leadership roles. On many issues it could be much broader than disaster preparedness.

But I think statistics still show that women do much a much greater proportion of unpaid domestic labour even here in Australia.


Is there a sense that we need to actually be first and foremost, educating men to be doing some of these domestic labour? There is still, even in a developed country like Australia, there is still a notion that domestic labour is the domain of a woman in a family unit, and how can we go about educating young people that that's something that should be shared equally?

Great question, when they introduce it to Australia I'll be really excited. I've got a son a two year old, and it's something I think about all the time. I mean I'd love to raise him as a feminist, so he understands gender equality and certainly within our household, that's what we try to practice. But broader society has a huge influence, and there's only so much you can do in that space.

And it's the same in all of the countries we work in. It's a really big conversation, and it's a really big issue, and it's something globally that we're going to be challenged by for many, many years to come. I mean we don't have the golden answer, the silver bullet to all of this, but certainly on an individual level and at a small scale, we're just working to start to shift some of those traditional ideas.

We'll wrap it up there, Melissa thank you so much for joining us on Conversations in Development.

Thanks so much Olivia and thank you Peter as well. It's been a delight to talk to you both.

Conversations in Development is produced by me, Olivia Rosenman, with music by studio Gary. The podcast is brought to you by Cufa. Cufa is an international development agency, whose work creates infinite value alleviating poverty, reaching more than four million people across Asia Pacific. To learn more about Cufa's work, and for more information on our guests visit ConversationsInDevelopment.com.au, and for more Conversations in Development make sure you subscribe to the podcast to catch all our episodes.