By Megan Rowling
SENDAI, Japan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women's vulnerability to disasters is a sign not of weakness but of inequality, and barriers to women taking the lead in protecting themselves must be removed, top politicians and officials told a U.N. conference on Saturday.
Philippine Senator Loren Legarda said statistics showed women face greater risks in times of disaster.
In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, women accounted for 70 percent of the deaths in Aceh, Indonesia, and parts of India. Most residents trapped in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were African-American women and their children, she said.
The situation persists following disasters too, Legarda added. Pregnant and lactating women have special needs that are often neglected, and women are more prone to sexual abuse, trafficking and other forms of violence in the aftermath of disasters, she said.
"These realities show that even in disaster impacts, there is no equality," she told the meeting in the northeastern city of Sendai, where a new global plan to reduce the risk of disasters is due to be adopted Wednesday.
Emiko Okuyama, the mayor of Sendai, where around 1,000 citizens died and 1 in 10 people had to leave their homes when a huge earthquake and tsunami struck in March 2011, said evacuation centers did not respond to women's needs at the time because they were mainly run by men.
Women reported that they had nowhere to change their clothes or breastfeed, and no separate bathroooms, which made them feel unsafe. They lacked sanitary products and were not offered enough different sizes of underwear, Okuyama told a session on mobilizing women's leadership to combat disasters.
"If women are not involved in planning on a regular basis, it will be difficult for them to be involved at the time of a disaster," she said.
In the case of Sendai, only around 10 percent of city staff working on disaster risk reduction - which includes preventing and responding to emergencies - were women at the time of the 2011 crisis. The city hall is now working to change that, although promoting women's participation in Japan is tough due to entrenched inequalities, Okuyama said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted in a speech that women are now represented in all prefectural disaster management councils, compared with only around half a decade ago.
"We believe that women's leadership is... essential in order to stand up to disasters," he said.
A plan announced by Japan on Saturday to train 40,000 officials and community members around the world to play leading roles in disaster risk reduction and reconstruction will include a project for women, Abe said.
In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, Japan focused its assistance on women, he added. It reconstructed agricultural processing plants that employed many women before the disaster, and built childcare facilities so they could get back to work more easily.
Also in response to Haiyan, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) commissioned mobile hospitals that could cater to women's needs in the hard-hit city of Tacloban, according to the agency's director, Babatunde Osotimehin.
"We make sure that we don't just do interventions for the purpose of the time - we also try to build resilience," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
For example, in the three West African countries hit by the Ebola epidemic - Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea - the UNFPA is setting up midwife services, so that women and children do not die from causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth because people have become reluctant to visit hospitals.
The hope is that the initiative will show the importance of well-staffed primary healthcare services, Osotimehin said.
While there have been improvements in awareness of, and response to, the problems facing women in disasters and conflicts - progress that is reflected in the draft of the new disaster reduction framework - there is still some way to go, he added.
Senator Legarda argued that calls for women to become leaders in protecting themselves and their communities from disasters would be "futile" unless they were educated and given fair job opportunities, reversing social and cultural constraints on their actions.
Former president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, said women could do much more in disaster risk reduction if they were provided with additional resources and education.
"It is a very smart investment," she said. "By empowering women, we enable them to take the right decisions for their family, but also the whole community, so men benefit too."
(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering)