Iran: Empowering women in disaster situations

Bita Roohi at the Summit of Disaster Management of Cities of Iran, Mashhad city held on 5 December 2012.
By Tricia Holly Davis

GENEVA, 4 February 2013 - Bita Roohi is the first woman to be appointed a disaster manager in Iran where she is in charge of disaster management and risk reduction for the city of Hamadan, situated 360 km south-west of Tehran on the slopes of Mount Alvand. Hamadan province has a long history of earthquakes.

The city has a population of some 500,000 and is exposed to seismic threats, rising groundwater levels and windstorms. It employs four permanent staff dedicated to prevention, prediction, preparedness, response, reconstruction and recovery divisions. The department works closely with consultants on outsourced projects to study surface and river water collection, seismic hazards and rising groundwater levels.

Speaking to UNISDR recently at an Iranian Cities' Summit on Disaster Management, Mrs. Roohi observed that "the best strategy to predict future is to construct it in the present time" and that in the wake of disaster events, "Post-disaster trauma, anxiety and depression affect nearly one out of every three women."

Here is the text of the interview.

Q. How did you become interested in Disaster Risk Reduction?

A. I used to work for Tehran Subway Company and then I joined Hamadan municipality. I studied gravimetric geophysics at the university. The reason I became interested in DRR was my thesis the title of which is "Determining the accurate boundaries of subterranean anomalies" in which we used as factual data subterranean pores; which was useful to predict the location of sinkholes and to prevent adverse consequences.

Q. What will be your first priority in your new role?

A. The first step will be to identify the status quo and the existing hazards. We at Hamadan Disaster Management Department (HDMD) studied the city's vulnerability to different hazards and based on the findings of these studies, made executive planning for disaster risk reduction. HDMD also seriously monitors compliance with safety and retrofitting principles in all development projects. In fact, the best strategy to predict the future is to construct it in the present time.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges facing Hamadan?

A. Obstruction of aqueducts and rising groundwater levels are among the main hazards facing Hamadan, but the biggest challenge is a hazard that we have not correctly evaluated or prepared for.

Q. Is there a dedicated budget for disaster risk reduction?

A. Yes -- we attempt in every construction project to ensure the structure's resilience in such a way as to withstand different hazards and to adopt such practices in development programs and infrastructure construction as to reduce city's risk. As you know, poor design of roads and canals and watercourses and buildings usually causes problems during disasters. Also substantial funds are allocated in the annual budget to procurement of necessary equipment and to reconstructing municipality buildings based on adopted prioritizations, creating green belts and increasing urban green spaces, as well as to addressing to environmental pollutions and management of waste induced crisis.

Q. Which of the Ten Essentials for Making Cities Resilient best reflects the city's strengths and gaps and why?

A. Essential 3: "Multi-hazard Risk Assessment" is a key strength of this municipality, which benefits from the expertise of university professors and competent consultants. Essential 2: "Financing and Resources" .... the funds available are inadequate for the solutions proposed by the city's advisors. Devising new financing and resources is a long-term concern of this department.

Q. You are the first Iranian woman to hold this position. How do you think you can serve as a role model for other Iranian women?

A. We should not think of sexual segregation in the workplace in its classical sense. Expectations from women are high in the workplace in particular when it comes to crisis management. Fortunately, women in many countries of the world have managed to identify their personal potentials and social responsibilities and shine in fulfillment of their assignments. To move on the right track for crisis management we must define our vision and mission and focus on the development of all employees' potential and skills.

Q. Will you focus on the gender-related impacts of disasters?

A. The tasks of specialist workgroups dealing with disasters in municipalities centers on insurance, reconstruction, recovery and providing earth moving machinery dealing with hazardous materials and burial. No allocated services can be offered to women and children. However, related service organizations should bear in mind during disasters that, due to physiological differences, women undergo different health consequences following disasters and social factors, too, seem to contribute to this trend. Limitations include women's more restricted access to resources, their inadequate association with social networks due to their critical role in the family, disproportionate involvement of women in making important decisions, shortage of knowledge, inadequate skills, not owning agricultural lands and economic resources and women's ignorance of their rights.

Women usually assume the major role in providing children with parental care; a woman is very unlikely to leave the disaster affected place because of her child.
When a woman loses her head of family in a disaster she will also face the risk of missing the aid distributed after the disaster and will suffer poverty as a result of this inequity. Gender differences are well established particularly in such common disorders as post-traumatic anxiety and depression. These disorders seriously affect the general health of the person and affect nearly one out of every three women.

Government executives must provide everyone with equally available opportunities and this means that even if there are equal opportunities created but they are not available for all, it will end up in injustice.

Communities must be encouraged, for the sake of women's involvement and empowerment, in all stages of crisis management programs to reduce vulnerability to natural disasters and since medical professionals are considered the principal authorities responsible for maintaining and enhancing the health of every individual in the society, it is very important for them to be aware of the general concepts of crisis management as well as certain dedicated approaches towards reduction of damages and the resultant effects like women empowerment in disasters.
The Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction 2018, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 16-19 July 2018 The Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction 2018, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 16-19 July 2018.
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