Women, Vulnerability, Resilience and Natural Disasters: Interview with Marta de Araujo Pinheiro

Teresopolis, Interview with Marta Araujo Pinheiro. Photo copyright: Shutterstock

In a forthcoming paper entitled “Mulheres em reconstruçāo nas situaçōes pós-desastre: relato sobre as chuvas de 2011 em Teresópolis” (Women Reconstructing in Post-Disaster Situations: The 2011 Rains in Teresópolis, Brazil) Marta de Araujo Pinheiro, a visiting fellow at CERI from UFRJ (Brazil), is interested in the situation of women in the face of natural disasters, their vulnerability, and their capacity for resilience and reconstruction, based on the case of the city of Teresópolis, in the state of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where the terrible landslides of 2011 caused a great deal of damage. Interview.

The study of natural disasters by the social sciences dates from the middle of the twentieth century; can it be said that they give sufficient consideration to women in the face of these phenomena?

Natural disasters are traditionally considered a gender-neutral phenomenon. However, since the 1990s, research has shown that gender inequalities, combined with other factors, can increase women’s vulnerability to natural disasters. Several contributions have emerged to address the gender perspective in catastrophic situations (Fothergill, 1996; Enarson, 1998; Fordham, 1998). These contributions highlight situations of high vulnerability of women and imply that they should be taken into consideration in policies and practices aimed at reducing disaster risk. What these studies have in common is that they show that the different vulnerabilities to these phenomena are socially constructed and linked to the social roles that men and women have historically assumed. Because they often take on the role of head of the household, women find it more difficult to resume daily life in the face of extreme events and post-disaster reconstruction processes, further deepening the social inequality they already suffer from.

More recently, new approaches seek to look beyond this vulnerability and the position of victims in which women are placed. They highlight women’s leadership and resilience in the stages of prevention and in their efforts to mitigate the impact of these events on their lives and their environment (Alston, 2014; Bradshaw, 2014). These approaches appear in international documents, including the Sendai International Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted by the United Nations in 2015, in which women’s participation is considered fundamental to disaster risk management. This document specifies that appropriate measures should be taken to empower women in post-disaster situations. A report entitled “ Gender Perspectives: Integrating Disaster Risk Reduction into Climate Change Adaptation ” (United Nations; International Strategy for Disaster Reduction), published in 2008, focused on female knowledge and participation in local decision-making processes concerning adaptation to climate change or the reduction of people’s vulnerability in several countries.

In Brazil, women represent 51.4% of the population, and despite the social transformations that have taken place in the last century from a gender perspective (more participation of women in the labour market, increasing schooling, reduction of fertility rate, better dissemination and access to information, etc.), the disparity remains immense. Inequalities in general and gender inequalities in particular are still very pronounced. Women earn less and have increasingly precarious jobs. At the same time, they are a fundamental and yet invisible presence in household management, particularly in the poorest regions. They increasingly support their families by themselves. About 40% of families have a woman “at their head” (IBGE, 2015), who assumes a double responsibility: that of a head of household, who also takes care of the emotional and daily needs of the family nucleus. In Brazil, sociologists Siena and Valêncio (2009) have showed through their research that once this responsibility has been assimilated, women become the family member most sensitive to material and symbolic losses related to housing.

The occupation of different spaces in urban and rural areas in Brazil results from a social process marked by unequal distribution: the low-income population is more exposed to the dangers of landslides and floods. The poorest social groups, including women, live in the most environmentally fragile areas and are therefore the hardest hit. Unsurprisingly, it is these groups that are most affected by environmental hazards.

My research aims to study the place of women in natural disasters, with a special focus on Teresópolis, a city hit by the heavy rains of 2011 and its socio-environmental reconstruction process. Teresópolis is located in the mountainous region of the state of Rio de Janeiro. In January 2011, one of the biggest disasters caused by meteorological phenomena occurred in this area, resulting in a colossal landslide classified by the UN as the eighth largest in the last hundred years. Initially, women were not among my first research interests. But while many technical reports presented the issue of the 2011 disaster by focusing on the number of victims, material losses, etc., during my field visits my interlocutors told me about their experiences, the difficulties encountered in rebuilding their lives, the need to act on the issue of housing. Among these voices, I met the most important people, the ones who allowed me to carry out an essential part of my research: women acting as mediators in the most affected working-class neighbourhoods, acting as leaders or active participants in victims’ associations or in the housing unit built to receive those who had lost their homes. These were women who were able to organise agricultural cooperatives by introducing new pesticide-free treatments on their small plots of land. But there were also other “less active” women who were still trying to overcome their pain, the many challenges that followed the disaster, and the difficulties of caring for children and their own parents, all of whom were under their responsibility. In view of this “call” from the field, I dedicated part of my research to this notable presence of women in the reconstruction processes in the region. I can say that it was the field itself that asked me new questions and that I have followed these questions.

Considering the two prevailing themes—women as vulnerable or women as resilient in the face of environmental disasters—I note that disasters reveal both the vulnerability of and interdependence between the victims, public actors, non-governmental organisations, and women are often essential to the overcoming of such situations. Gender is important in disaster studies, but in view of my research experience, I believe that it must be considered in its particular context, because the specificity of women’s vulnerability and/or capacity/resilience may differ. Perhaps it is through more case studies that we will be able to find out how and in what contexts women are able to cope with inequality in the face of environmental hazards.

Xerem, Duque de Caixas, Brazil. Copyright: Shutterstock

Xerem, Duque de Caixas, state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Landslide in 2013. Photo copyright: Shutterstock

You deal with the concept of ecofeminism. Can you quickly present this ideology and tell us what this perspective brings to the study of the relationship that exists between women (without essentialising them) and natural disasters?

Ecofeminism is a contested term that underpins a diversity of ideas and actions. This conflict of approaches includes criticism of the patriarchal structure in Western modernity, the way in which domination over women coincides with that of nature, or the more social ecofeminism established in the South—that of women in the poorest countries who struggle for subsistence without a critical hiatus between the spiritual and the material. Shiva (1988) and Mies & Shiva (1993/2014) argue that caring for the common, the land we share with all living beings, would require attention and a valuing look at all practices that support life at the local level, especially those of women and traditional groups living in the southern hemisphere. This tradition is being renewed through thinking and practice committed to social transformation and care ethics, in order to reflect on the sustainability of societies (Herrero, 2013). Fundamental in this respect is the work of Silvia Federici (2012), which should also be added to this discussion. Her investigations of the current capitalist appropriation of so-called market externalities range from women’s domestic work to broader issues of ecological reproduction. Brazilian scholar Maria Inácia d'Ávila (1993) reflected on the relationship between nature and gender, indicating that “development hides the issue of power”, and the issue of women. As a result of her fieldwork in the Pantanal region—in the prairie and savannah biome—in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, she argued that it should be important that power in its political-social form be shared by female and male beings in an “ecological sensitivity” that transcends gender divisions. Recalling in fact the African cosmogony in which “plants, animals and men are based on the same principle”, the author draws attention to the poetic and invented aspect of this construction and thus moves away from all essentialism. It is not a question of origin, foundation, or domination, but of a possible point of convergence between feminist and ecological movements in the poetic sense of “transforming social relations and sexually designated roles”. Such a reference would thus make it possible to consider that the heterogeneous (and contested) perspectives developed by ecofeminists cannot be reduced to a monolithic paradigm that opposes the nurturing qualities of women to male technoscience. In this sense and in a more current context, through a “revisited ecofeminism”, Greta Gaard (2011) provides a stimulating account of contributions that focus on perceptions of the links between racism, sexism, and the appropriation of nature, proposing to reclaim ecofeminism as fundamental to encompass socio-natural components. Philosophers Isabelle Stengers (2008) and Émile Hache (2016) also contribute to this debate on “ecofeminism revisited” by pointing out that it is not only a question of reconciling human beings and the earth after centuries of exploitation. Nor does a new relationship and composition between them imply reciprocity and partnership.

In the context of my research, the discussion on Southern ecofeminism and “ecofeminism revisited” has allowed me to broaden the understanding that women in the Brazilian context should not be seen only as helpless victims. Because they mobilise to help their communities and despite all the challenges, they become agents of transformation.

You have worked on the local situation of women of the city of Teresópolis, using the biographic method of “life stories”. According to you, can we talk of intersectionality for women who suffered the devastating rains of 2011 in Brazil?

The concept of gender—in its different perspectives—is historically constructed in such a way as to deny the essence of women and to allow political practice to acknowledge differences. In this sense, the concept of intersectionality contributes to broaden the approach by integrating the interplay of power relations between gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and colonisation in the production and reproduction of inequalities. This allows for new angles of vision to observe a social phenomenon. In the Brazilian case, we can link the concept of intersectionality to the concepts of “environmental injustice” (Acselrad, Herculano, and Pádua, 2004) and “environmental racism” (Bullard, 2004). The terms refer to the greater vulnerability of certain social groups to environmental destruction and, in this case, to social and environmental disasters. It is no coincidence that, for example, the populations most affected by landslides are poor and black. In this sense, this conceptualisation is fundamental to demystify the occurrence of environmental disasters. It is not a simple hazard of nature.

At the same time, it is important to pay attention to the fact that causes are not necessarily universal; women’s tactical and strategic choices are made in different contexts, times, and spaces. Throughout my research, I have tried to use more subtle methodological resources that could give voice to these different strategies.

This is a long-term project because it is important to identify, with the necessary amplitude, the reconstruction and recomposition processes of this population. During my field visits, individual interviews, qualitative focus groups, conversations, and recorded accounts were organised, collected, and collated in order to trace the trajectories following the event. Among these methodologies, the life story method proved to be a revealing one for my research. It has emerged as a relevant tool for understanding how subjects represent events. Life stories can bring a fundamental asset to research, according to Becker (1994), because it gives meaning to the notion of a process of formation of the individual act in which personal conduct is continually reformulated. As a relationship, it is unique and cannot be considered representative of an entire community. On the other hand, listening to life stories allows the researcher to encounter surprise, to hear what others are telling him or her without it being immediately reduced to what is already considered known, and even allows them to address what was not included in the original research questions. This listening allows the stories heard to resonate and produce effects on the researcher and the research itself.

You mention the “banality of these exceptional situations”. What do you mean by this?

A large-scale natural disaster such as the 2011 rains causing death, illness, displacement, and homelessness interrupts the rhythm of daily life. An emergency situation involves the entire local population, governmental and non-governmental institutions, the media, public opinion, humanitarian aid, scientists, and experts. It is necessary to try to identify the causes, responsibilities, new protocols... The event in Teresópolis highlighted the need for Brazil to better prepare for emergencies and public calamity. Thus, in 2012, the Federal Government launched the National Risk Management and Natural Disaster Response Plan 2012-2014 (Brazil) with investments in four areas: (i) response (relief, assistance, and reconstruction); (ii) monitoring and warning; (iii) mapping of risk areas; and (iv) prevention. This plan laid the foundations for the National Public Policy for Natural Disaster Response, which has since entered into force.

What I call “the banality of the exception” has two meanings. First, floods and landslides in the case of Brazil—the state of Rio de Janeiro and the mountainous region in particular—are events that are repeated every summer when storms are stronger. Deaths, injuries, and homelessness are already part of the seasonal “routine”. In this sense, we could speak of an initial feeling of the “banality of exceptional situations”. After the event, everything resumes and nothing changes. In 1987, a storm in the mountainous region of the state of Rio de Janeiro had already caused the death of 200 people. When the rains returned in 2011, the death toll reached nearly 1,000 people. Since then, uncontrolled occupation of land and insecure housing has increased in the mountainous region but also throughout the state, such as the buildings erected by the militias in protected environmental areas west of the city of Rio de Janeiro. While resulting from extreme events, the deaths have become part of a routine. Recently, in February 2020, the city of Rio de Janeiro was hit by disasters as a result of heavy summer rains; these disasters were considered new and the new victims were more lamented..

Landslide Rio de Janeiro 2019. Copyright: Shutterstock

A Landslide in Rio de Janeiro. 9 April 2019. Copyright: Shutterstock

A second sense of banality refers to daily activities and questions the actions, from a more local point of view, of the different actors present in post-disaster situations, especially women—who take care of their children, maintain family support, organise the home, care for the elderly, return to work, and finally maintain a whole routine that is considerably interrupted and has to be resumed differently, although in the long term the “initial conditions” rarely change. The difficulty of adapting to this new way of life, in a new home and on a new urban territory, involves social and material aspects (financial difficulties, loss of housing, loss of self-esteem, loss of social relations).

The contribution of research on socio-environmental reconstruction results from long-term studies: it is based not only on the occurrence of disasters, which are exceptional in nature, but throughout the entire process, particularly in the post-disaster period, during which it is possible to understand the transformations taking place in the daily lives of the individuals and groups affected, the different interpretations of the people involved, and the actions and policies put in place to overcome a disaster and rebuild a life.

In the end, if women are more vulnerable to natural disasters—a vulnerability that results from structures more than from women themselves—what type of resilience, what “reappropriation” do women express?

What I was able to gather from the life stories and from meeting the women from Teresópolis is that reconstruction is most often a question of encounters and connections, overlapped by small daily actions. Women do not act in isolation. They involve their environment, their neighbours, communities near and far, state agents, and non-governmental organisations. In short, we can say that they know how to seek and find support for their collective actions by learning how to use available resources.

While women are most affected by natural disasters, their vulnerability is not innate. On the contrary, it can be seen as the result of inequalities produced by the social gender roles and linked to discrimination and poverty. Although the dimensions explored in my research are not sufficient to universalise, I believe that they can be effective observation points. All of these encounters and connections that women are able to activate broaden our understanding and allow us to see them no longer merely as helpless victims but as full-fledged agents of transformation who rally to help their communities and families.

In addition, the idea that communities are systematically resilient in themselves is being challenged. There may indeed be a violation of the limits of a form of elasticity that does not necessarily call adaptability into question but which generates decision-making that needs to be rebuilt on other bases and, above all, that this cannot be achieved without the support of various organisations, community members, or institutions, whether formal or informal. This reality reinforced the perception that all of these actors were essential in reconfiguring daily life after the disaster.

Interview by Miriam Perier, CERI

English version by Miriam Perier and Caitlin Gordon Walker

References mentioned in the interview

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