Resilience and the shape of your body

We’ve all been there – a discussion about gender issues in international development deteriorates in a defensive exchange, and people finally give up, convinced that the other is too narrow minded to work with.

So one of the most important factors in what makes some people more sensitive to shocks and stresses than others gets left by the wayside. “Differential vulnerability” – why you and I can experience a disaster differently, even though we live in the same place with roughly the same socioeconomic status – is a key concept to building resilience. People sometimes equate “vulnerability” with “poverty,” and gender differences are a prime example of where this equation breaks down. For example, women in refugee camps have a widely different experience than the men in their families, being much more exposed to sexual assault or exploitation, even just going in search of water or trying to cross a border.

But this example just follows the classic defensive discussion – “gender” means “women.” In work I recently did in Niger in West Africa, we had much better luck looking at gender constraints for everyone, not just women. That is, what roles are you forced into just because of the type of body you were born with, not because of your talents or dreams?

We tried to represent these roles in a simple infographic:

There are three groups represented here, which everyone in Niger knows:

• Women
• Men
• Teenage boys

The upper left focuses on the role of women, who perform the familiar tasks of childcare, small scale farming, collecting water and firewood. And all of these tasks become more onerous during droughts when water sources dry up, firewood becomes scarce, and men are off looking for paid work. So far, a familiar story.

But the other two boxes focus on men and boys. The men, like it or not, are obligated to leave home, often crossing many borders in search of work. The risks are high from traffic accidents, theft, dangerous work in construction or unregulated factories, and the debt they must go into to finance all this. And no one asks a man if this is what he wants to do, as a man it’s his role to work for money.

Or for young men in Diffa in the southeast, infiltration from Boko Haram makes them a target for recruitment by the fundamentalists coming in from Nigeria, and for the military and police who treat them like a terrorist regardless of their choices. Simply be being teenage males, they are a target from both sides, regardless of their beliefs or behaviors.

Discussing gender roles in this way can make it easier for people to see the difference gender makes in vulnerability. In most cases it is women who come up on the short end of the stick when looking at vulnerability, but that’s not the whole story. In the end freedom is about choices. The more choices people have, the more likely they are to find their own ways to deal with the shocks and stresses that they need to manage.

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