On August 23, 1992 Hurricane Andrew hit southern Miami, displacing more than 180,000 people and leaving over 75% of Miami’s population without electricity for up to six months. It was the most devastating hurricane the city had ever seen. Miami lost 8,000 businesses, nearly all public buildings, over 90 schools and health facilities, and most of its fire and police stations. As the rubble was cleared and the post-disaster relief began, a powerful force emerged. Women Will Rebuild organized and gave a voice to their communities. Under the guidance of this coalition of local women’s groups, the reconstruction process effectively focused on the actual needs of residents.
Miami after Hurricane Andrew shows how women’s leadership can fill gaps in disaster response and preparedness and make lasting change that will benefit the entire community. Building back from the hurricane was important, but Women Will Rebuild was able to “build back better.” Members of the coalition drew upon their accumulated knowledge and skills, including those gained in their roles as community leaders and caregivers, and focused on the needs of people, of women, children and the most marginalized. They worked in a non-hierarchical and participatory way in order to be inclusive of all communities. As a result, Women Will Rebuild helped Miami to build back better by recognizing and addressing discriminatory practices that existed before Hurricane Andrew, and which persisted during the disaster relief. Women Will Rebuild advocated and succeeded in including more women in the decision-making process for the reconstruction of Miami. Their participation and leadership helped highlight issues apparent at temporary relief camps, such as the lack of access to telephones, emergency services, and childcare, as well as the slow reconstruction of public housing. This contributed to millions of dollars’ worth of public funds directed to targeted programs addressing youth recreation services, teen pregnancy, childcare and domestic violence.
Women often bear the primary responsibility for caring for children, the elderly and the sick. These responsibilities – dubbed part of the “care economy” – often exist in addition to other formal and informal work, and shocks and disasters can compound these challenges. The care economy is an essential pillar that holds up society. In fact, if unpaid care work were accounted for it would increase GDP by 26% in the United States, 40% in Switzerland, and 50% in Australia. In Miami, the knowledge women possessed as primary actors in the community and associated care economy proved essential to their ability to respond effectively to disaster. This is the case for most cities; the knowledge women develop and invest in the care economy can aid in reducing inequality and building resilience. Despite a cultural appreciation of women’s care work, society cannot benefit from it until it is valued in our institutions.
Women are already working in the informal and unpaid care economy. They invest skills, knowledge and time that is not compensated. When disasters strike, they often can use those leadership and community organizing skills to support response and ensure the most marginalized receive services. However, if cities want to capitalize on those skills, they must institutionalize support and services through inclusive policy-making that responds to and redistributes women’s multiple responsibilities in the community, their families and at work. To ensure better resilience, it is therefore crucial that cities support existing women’s and community organizations by including them in the decision-making process, by providing them with financial and other resources, and by ensuring their voice is recognized at all institutional levels.
This blog was written for 100 Resilient Cities by The Women’s Environment and Development Organization as part of their larger research project looking at the many connections between climate change, urban resilience and gender equality.
Head photo: Female Doctor in Pakistan, DFID, Flickr, Remixed by 100RC