Crisis Response Must Take Gender into Account

We cannot overlook the impacts of pandemics, armed conflict, and climate change on women and children, Tufts expert says

This is the first installment of our Women’s History Month 2021 series.

Growing up with feminist parents active in social justice, Dyan Mazurana, a research professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and The Fletcher School, has pondered the intersections of gender, race, age, ability, disability, and sexuality for most of her life. Since her early days as an undergraduate through to her time now as a Tufts professor, she has focused on understanding, preventing and responding to violence against women and children.

The coronavirus has pushed gender perspectives to the forefront even more. “The pandemic is the perfect lens through which to view factors of sex, gender, and race, among others, because those factors are literally determining who lives and who dies,” said Mazurana, who also directs the research program on women, children, and armed conflict at the Feinstein International Center.

Tufts Now: You are part of a group at Tufts that received a $100 million, five-year, 10-country grant from USAID called STOP Spillover. Your role in that project is to understand how gender matters in zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 that jump from animals to humans and how the response to these diseases must take gender into account. Why is that important?

Dyan Mazurana: We are trying to understand how the risks of zoonotic spillover differ among genders. Let’s look at the 2013-2016 Ebola crisis in West Africa. During that crisis, we saw that many more women died of Ebola. This is because women have the role of caring for sick family members. They have specific roles in washing and preparing the bodies of the dead in burial rituals. As a result, they had much more direct contact with people who were infected.

Also, women make up the majority of nurses, so when we heard that “health-care workers” died, the majority of those women; over 70 percent of the health-care workers in some of the Ebola affected countries that died were women. It’s very important to understand what different zoonotic diseases look like from a gender perspective. How does a person’s sex, gender, race/ethnicity, and class influence risk of infection? How do these factors influence the treatments available to a person? How do our preventative measures need to take these factors into account?

Can you expand on climate change and how it impacts genders differently?

Research on natural disasters clearly shows that where there are high levels of inequality of women as compared to men in a society, more women with die and die at younger ages than they would otherwise. The worse the gender inequality in a country, the more women that die. Why? Let’s look at the tsunamis that hit the Indian Ocean in late 2004. At the time the tsunamis occurred, it was early morning. Women living along the coastlines were at home, with their children and household work. But because they did not have access to radios (usually controlled by men) when the tsunami hit, they had little to no warning.

They were then trying to escape with children and the elderly for whom they were responsible, and they could not flee quickly. In some cases, they were not allowed to leave their homes without a male chaperone, so they stayed inside and were killed by floodwaters and collapsing buildings.

In all the locations affected, we saw higher death rates of women. In some villages in Aceh in Indonesia, there were four dead women for every one man who died from the tsunami. One of the results of the loss of adult women was that men increasingly married girls to take care of their children and provide domestic labor. We saw an increase in child marriage, with girls being pulled out of school to wed. Child brides become child mothers, which causes higher infant-maternal mortality. Girls who are married and have children when they are a child themselves are more likely to have their own daughters marry as child brides, and it’s just this spiral downward to even worse poverty and inequality.

You direct the Feinstein International Center’s Research Program on Gender, Youth and Conflict. How did you come to the research of human rights, specifically those of women and children affected by armed conflict?

I always knew I wanted to be of service to others. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in fine arts, art history, and feminist theory. When I was working in the feminist art criticism world, I learned about a dramatic incident involving the daughter of a community member who was being profoundly sexually abused. This shocking experience led to me to start directly working on issues of violence against women and girls. I went on to complete a second master’s and my doctorate focusing on that, and now, when children and women are terribly abused, I know how to activate my networks to respond.

Your most recent book is about children in situations of armed conflict and violence that you encountered over the last 20 years of your research. But the surprising twist is that you feature the voices and stories of children to inform readers about what they can teach us about strengthening young people’s resilience.

We have children who are creating entire organizations to help thousands of people who have been wounded by war. We have young people who were captured as sex slaves by ISIS and who plan and carry out an escape, taking with them six other girls who travel 100 miles from inside ISIS territory to freedom.

What is it about these young people that makes them so resilient? What is it that makes some individuals able not only to survive but to thrive in the face of such tremendous odds? Is there something in their genetics, personality, or upbringing? Is it something about their environment? Or is it a particular combination of all of the above? Perhaps most importantly, what could we learn about their ability not only to endure but to thrive if we were to listen to them? 

The answer, as I explain in my book, is what we call “ordinary magic”—factors in ordinary life that contribute to these children not only surviving but thriving. My book is a deep look at the key ordinary magic factors in these children’s lives: individual traits, caregivers, friends, community solidarity, hope, belonging, and faith.

I let the ‘so-called’ child soldiers, child slaves, child brides and child grooms, street children and those living in warzones and slums, speak for themselves. In their own words, they show what they prioritize, and how they strategize to meet their priorities. They demonstrate what young people actually do to try and protect themselves, their families, and their communities from violence—and from threats to their dignity.

What other current gender-based research interests you right now?

There is so much going on. First, Professor Kimberly Theidon of The Fletcher School and I are about to publish a ground-breaking book on children born of wartime rape; I believe this book will set the standard on how we think about and work with these young people and their mothers. Second, there’s essential research going on about how migrants’ journeys and settlement are shaped by sex, age, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.

Finally, we are beginning to see research on how lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) people are affected by armed conflict and natural disaster and are trying to survive in countries that persecute them. We are learning about what is happening, what do they prioritize, and how we can best inform institutions and systems so that sexual minorities have their rights upheld.

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