Conflict, gender inequality and disasters: how to respond

July 11, 2019
Suzy Madigan

As Cyclone Kenneth roared towards Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique, residents of one archipelago island brushed off warnings transmitted through the ‘radio communitaria’: a government official riding a bicycle across the island yelling information through a megaphone. Five weeks earlier, Cyclone Idai had hit central Mozambique. Two cyclones of that magnitude in one season was unheard of.

Cynicism quickly turned to disbelief. As Kenneth ripped up everything in its path, islanders hunkered down in collective shelters as their homes were destroyed. One man described rushing his family to safety at the island’s colonial stone fort and seeing the crowd followed by a line of panicked donkeys seeking shelter. Another woman told us how she watched people’s savings scattering in the wind – with limited access to formal banking, islanders hide their money under rocks.

By the evening of 25 April a further 374,000 Mozambicans were in need of assistance, on top of the 1.85 million affected by Cyclone Idai.

Harder than it looks

The response in northern Mozambique has been slow and complex, not only because it’s under-funded or because some areas were so damaged they were accessible only by helicopter. A new report highlights two key issues which have magnified the cyclone’s impact: a simmering conflict which few outsiders fully understand and entrenched gender inequalities. The latter should be no great surprise – it’s a pattern that plays out globally – but agencies need to understand the textured ways in which inequalities are experienced to avoid reinforcing them.

Because conflict and gender inequality reduce people’s ability to cope, natural hazard-related disasters affect certain places, and certain people in those places, much more than others. Add poverty to the mix – which is extreme in Cabo Delgado – and communities’ resilience is severely compromised.

Women and girls hit hardest

Discrimination against women and girls in northern Mozambique compromises their safety, health and development. Following a disaster, the secondary effects of this hit women like aftershocks. For example, lost crops and livelihoods have led to food insecurity – everyone is affected – but, because a man traditionally eats first, women and children are going hungry.

Other inequalities are insidious and easy to miss, such as women’s limited access to information. When disaster strikes, not having access to key information, or not being consulted about your specific needs, will affect how you recover. The risk of gender-based violence has also increased with the cyclone, including domestic violence, coerced sex for money or goods and early marriage.

‘Girls have a monetary value,’ one female leader told us, rubbing her fingers together signalling cash. ‘We need to teach families how psychologically damaging this is.’

Boys, but more often older men, can pay a lobolo (bride price) to have a girl leave her family and move in with him. In some areas, she may be as young as nine or ten. And in times of increased economic hardship, as caused by a crisis like Cyclone Kenneth, families are more likely to resort to these measures.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a single cause or group responsible for insecurity in northern Mozambique. Potential drivers range from feelings of exclusion to organised crime and extremism. But opaque as the conflict is, to deliver assistance without inadvertently exacerbating tensions humanitarians need to quickly, and safely, map the landscape – even as it changes – and be ready to change course as new information becomes available. Understanding what conflict sensitivity looks like in this context is key.

In a humanitarian response, quality compromises speed and vice versa. Being sensitive to conflict and gender dynamics requires discussion and analysis. Yet, conducting a conflict analysis for each area of intervention might seem impractical when there are distributions to be made; seeking the opinions of women, girls and other less accessible groups, such as older people and those with disabilities, takes time.

It is harder to work in this way – and it requires adequate resourcing. But it is crucial to avoid doing harm.

The rewards are also high. Despite the challenges, a fully-funded, gender- and conflict-sensitive response to Cyclone Kenneth might just be an opportunity to bring greater stability and inclusion to the region. 

Suzy Madigan is Senior Humanitarian Advisor (Gender & Protection) at CARE International UK. She is the author of the report Rapid Gender and Protection Analysis, Cyclone Kenneth Response, Mozambique, June 2019.


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