Anna Falth

UN Women

Viet Nam is seriously affected by the adverse impacts of climate change, especially in its coastal and low-land regions. An average of one million people are affected by, and about 500 people die, as a result of storm-induced flooding annually in the Mekong Delta region and coastal areas. In addition, the central coast region, Mekong Delta and mountainous areas are faced with serious droughts.

Preparing for disasters and a reduction in the risks of death and injury requires an in-depth understanding of the specific demographics (such as sex and age) of the population living in vulnerable and risky areas. Vulnerability mapping, either on the basis of census data, or when such data is lacking, through community vulnerability mapping is a critical tool for improving such understanding.

Preparing for disasters also requires full engagement of both women and men. Women are often proactive in disaster preparedness and response and have skills and knowledge that should be capitalised upon. Yet, women’s contributions to disaster risk management are not fully recognised. Their participation in decision-making in local formal political and management structures remains low, which hamper these structures’ ability to respond to disasters in a gender-responsive manner.

UN Women’s programme “Strengthening Women’s Capacity in Disaster Risk Reduction to Cope with Climate Change” aims to promote transformative changes that increase resilience of both women and men to future disasters. The concept of this programme emerged as a result of south-south exchange of experience with the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction on disaster preparedness in Latin America.

Radio broadcasting and radio soap operas, “Tiempos de Huracanes”, had proven to be an effective means to reaching high numbers of women and men in Costa Rica (2 million); Honduras (2 million); and Nicaragua (360,000 people) in 2002. Coupled with these radio shows were local group meetings with hundreds of thousands of women discussing the specifics of how to increase household and community disaster preparedness. Since the Voice of Viet Nam (the major national radio station) has an outreach of millions people daily and the Viet Nam Women’s Union has a membership of 15 million women, the concept of radio soap operas seemed to be an effective mechanism to raise awareness of, and action by, women’s groups in flood-prone areas.

The Nicaraguan radio soap opera scripts were translated into Vietnamese and then adjusted to the local context of flood and typhoon preparedness in Viet Nam. The radio show – which reaches about 80% of households – tackles issues ranging from scheduling of farming practices and building of solid housing, to coping with landslides and undertaking first aid. Similarly to the approach used in Latin America, the Women’s Union facilitates group discussions to help its members apply what they learned from the radio shows to their own lives. Real situation drama played by members of local women’s unions with women’s active engagement as both actors and spectators has proven an effective way to reinforce the radio messages.

UN Women’s strategy for this programme has been to move away from the perception that women are vulnerable victims and passive members of community, and instead promote women as active agents of change. This approach has resulted in the first two women ever becoming Storms and Flood Control Committee members at the provincial level. Partnering with other UN agencies and NGOs in Viet Nam, UN Women is now advocating for the Viet Nam Women’s Union to have a minimum of one representative on each of these Committees. Women union leaders at the grassroots and provincial levels are provided with training to enhance their communication skills and knowledge to create their own community vulnerability maps. Women beneficiaries of this training have identified swimming as a critical skill for survival during disasters and are now calling for swimming classes to further strengthen their disaster preparedness.

Moving forward, UN Women will continue to promote south-south dialogue on this disaster preparedness model and will organise a study visit for counterparts from Bangladesh in early 2013.

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This article is based on interviews with Suzette Mitchell, UN Women Viet Nam Country Representative, and Nguyen T.M. Huong, Director of the Department of Information, Education and Communication, Viet Nam Women’s Union