By Kareem Kiwan
On August 4th of 2020, a devastating explosion at the Beirut Port resulted in more than 190 innocent deaths, 6500 injuries treated in overburdened chaotic emergency rooms , hundreds of thousands of homeless citizens, and $20 billion of property damages. It has been estimated that up to 150,000 women have been displaced due to the blast, out of which 30,000 have already been unemployed due to the unprecedented dire economic situation the country is facing, and 58 have lost their lives. This has bred a horrendous situation that has only been amplified by pre-existing struggles of Lebanese and migrant women who face daily battles against sexual harassment, lack of job security and equal pay, poor access to healthcare services, social exploitation, and a global crippling pandemic to top it all of. Given the fact that women are considerably more vulnerable due to socio-economic, cultural and traditional norms, and the lack of necessary skill-development capacities to respond and tackle disasters on both the short and long term, there is a desperate need for a gender considerate emergency plan of action that considers the blast's aftermath on all exposed and vulnerable women. As such, it is incremental to visualize a functioning policy framework revolving around inclusive disaster risk management that responds to vulnerabilities in the current action plan.
Any efforts to implement such initiatives and policy frameworks will have resonating effects on the nonhomogeneous groups of women that have been affected by the explosion; according to an existing gender analysis of the explosion, 8% of households affected were those of old women living alone, 51% of female headed households, and 5% of pregnant and lactating women in need of reproductive services, among others. This gendered analysis done by the UN acts as an even more compelling basis to support a gender-oriented disaster management approach in the case of Beirut, Lebanon. Now, more than ever, there is a crucial need for gender inclusion in disaster management as women and young girls are affected differently in such “non-gender neutral" scenarios through flimsy risk reduction capacities and post-disaster risk susceptibility that, if not addressed, will result in a witnessed increase in gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, economic vulnerability, reduction in quality of livelihood, and deterioration of health and hygienic practices. As such, not only will disaster resilience take into consideration gendered challenges, but it will also invest in meaningful women empowerment as a vital ingredient for success. This will be done through both providing effective and inclusive support for women in need as well as opening the chance for women to be part of leadership and the decision making process. The strategy will mainly be attempted through the heavy influence of international organizations, public pressure, and community awareness, that, as have been witnessed, are playing the most crucial role in providing disaster management assistance and are capable of pushing their own agendas and gendered objectives to the spotlight.
Given the case of Lebanon, any inclusive strategic framework to be acted upon must be co-developed with and incorporated into the public sector, international and non-governmental national agencies, community members - especially affected women - and the private sector. Firstly, it is incremental to include the state as one of the main stakeholders and hold it accountable for its obligations towards inclusive responsiveness. According to feminist activist Lina Abou Habib, a various array of challenges is certainly expected to be faced in this particular course, as the current power quo can be described as a regime which has not yet acknowledged basic human rights and freedoms and is not accepting any form of criticism that highlights the present corruption. As for international agencies, several initiatives with lavish funding have been recorded from the examples of the United Nations, The World Bank, and the European Union. These efforts, if re-designed and situated within an agreed upon inclusive policy framework, can significantly alter the imbalance of societal and economic empowerment of disaster-stricken women through building an effective communication channel and collaborative work environment between both the public and private sector. This links well with the need for providing activists and NGOs an active and powerful voice, who have already recognized the presence of inequalities and an exploitative nature of incoming aids through “A charter of demands for a gendered response to the Beirut explosion". The charter is seen as a collective uproar from multiple women's rights organizations in Lebanon to demand more inclusive disaster management, better food security, and gender sensitive assessment protocols. This stems from previous experiences with national relief aid being spent in a discriminatory manner posing serious exclusion issues. It is also just as important, when dealing with policies of such an enormous community magnitude, to understand that true knowledge and experience that constitutes the backbone of an inclusive policy must stem from the collaboration and participation of those women affected by those disasters. In other words, the experience and the knowledge required to embody a feminist approach is through these communities being present as their own decision and policy makers. Finally, in regard to whom such policy development would include, the private sector has a role as well as the ultimate job security, benefit provider, and financial vice during post-conflict scenarios.
To conclude, our response to disasters have been proven not to be gender neutral, and the impacts of the preexisting state conditions combined with cultural norms and practices and socioeconomic imbalances only exacerbated the problem. However, this does not mean that achieving a shift in power and giving vulnerable communities, both women and children, a voice is impossible. For it is only through evidence-based and data reliant initiatives that we can ensure inclusive and representative disaster responses in this nation.
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