Women, Communities, Resilience: What’s Not to Understand?

In: The Future of Ocean Governance and Capacity Development
Murielle Provost Cape Breton University, Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada

Search for other papers by Murielle Provost in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access


Zeinab Mokalled in Lebanon and Sanumaya Kumal in Nepal live 4,600 kilometers apart in very different places, cultures, and circumstances, so what can they possibly have in common? The late poet Maya Angelou would have called them ‘women warriors’. They understood hardship, and overcame challenges with wisdom, creativity, and fortitude. Armed with a secret weapon—resilience—their courageous actions have triggered a social tsunami of progressive change within their own communities and beyond—much needed and welcome given that the ‘Blue Marble’, which we affectionately call ‘Mother Earth’ or ‘Mother Nature’, has been increasingly showing her displeasure as she “groans in travail”1 to restore equilibrium after decades of human neglect and irresponsible activities. In the Americas alone in 2017, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, earthquakes in Mexico, and California wildfires have been just a few examples of her artful rebukes.

Masses of women like Zeinab and Sanumaya recognize that they can be, and are, key agents of change in addressing Mother Nature’s wrath. But despite this knowledge—which will come as no surprise to the more than 1.5 billion women who constitute half of today’s coastal dwellers—being less visible in their work also makes them less likely to have access to decision-makers, to be consulted on how to better safeguard community assets and resources, or to be engaged in reconstruction of their living environment following a disaster. Underscoring the foresight and resolve that women everywhere are contributing to creating better communities—whether inland or coastal; urban, rural, or remote—this essay portrays two stories of “women developing resilience to manage vulnerability” in their own communities.2

Mother Earth’s Difficult Children

Out of a total landmass of almost 37 billion acres, Mother Earth houses 58 people per square kilometer atop the 16,000,000,000 acres that are habitable. Sixteen billion acres—how large is that? If it were dollars, it would mean the equivalent of saving $10,000 every single day for 4,384 years. Or buying 80,000 houses at $200,000 each. Or, if you like travelling and think in terms of miles, flying around the world 642,544 times, or even taking a round trip to the Moon 33,487 times.

On that habitable terrain, approximately three billion people or about 40 percent of the world’s population live within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of a coast—that’s the equivalent of just over two consecutive 42.2-kilometer marathons. And by 2025, that population is anticipated to double.3 Our persistence in developing diverse societies in coastal areas—defined by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization as the “interface or transition areas between land and sea”4—results in increasing and unremitting challenges to all facets of human activity that hamper “the ultimate purpose” of emergency management, disaster risk reduction, and resilience-building, which is “to save lives, preserve the environment and protect property and the economy” from natural, technological, and human-caused events.5

In addition to their status in the community, women confront another determinant in how they contribute to that ‘ultimate purpose’, and that is the type of community in which they live. Factors such as geographical size, demographic composition, availability of critical infrastructure, governance, emergency response resources, cultural ideologies, and beliefs are just some of many influences that play a role. In an attempt to offer clarity with respect to different coastal community types, Professor Tim Smith classifies them into five kinds: cities (including megacities, which typically have populations exceeding ten million, such as Tokyo-Yokohama, Japan or New York City and its surroundings); peri-urban areas (the transition zones between urban and non-urban areas); regional centers (smaller than cities); regional settlements (small clusters of villages and hamlets); and rural areas.6 While there are abundant opportunities to advance the greater good, a novel approach is required to engage women fully in preventing or mitigating, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies that threaten the ‘ultimate purpose’ as well as in affecting change, and overcoming long-standing political, social, and environmental challenges.

Regardless of their type, coastal communities are increasingly vulnerable to threats of cascading anthropogenic activities. Climate change (causing unprecedented volatile weather patterns), rising sea levels (is it possible that some coastal communities will become ramshackle floating ‘atolls’ as portrayed in the 1995 movie Waterworld?), coastal erosion and degradation, decline in ecosystems, unmanaged development, growing urbanization, poor resource management, and other kind of threats from human activities—all are well documented. And although the alarm bells have been ringing for several decades now, implementing effective measures remains difficult for many public and private bodies since they rely primarily on the certainty of facts for decision-making. To this end, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, agreed upon at the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015, is notably encouraging. It outlines targets and priorities aiming “to achieve the substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries over the next 15 years.”7

Despite these efforts, Mother Nature is no longer waiting for us to get our act together. As she continues to go about her business, we must become better at developing hazard-resilient communities and enhancing the ability of coastal communities to absorb and recover from impacts. That requires everyone’s effort; and yet almost 50 percent of coastal dwellers are underutilized. Women—100 of them for every 102 men8—can help, as Zeinab’s and Sanumaya’s stories will illustrate.


When the regional governor asked why she cared—after all, “We are not Paris” he had told her—81-year-old Zeinab Mokalled from Arabsalim, Lebanon established a community collection team in the mid-1990s to address the rubbish that was piling up on the streets of her village. At the time, southern Lebanon had been occupied by Israel for 15 years and waste collection had ceased. Refused assistance by the regional governor, Zeinab “called on the women of the village to help, not the men—partly because she wanted to empower them, and partly because she thought they would do a better job.” Today, her commitment to “ensuring that Arabsalim is clean and tidy” has inspired women in the nearby villages of Kaffaremen and Jaarjoua to establish their own initiatives, as well as the creation of an organization named ‘Call of the Earth’ where a stream of visitors is learning more about how “caring for the earth is our responsibility in this part of the world. Whether we do it or not, our politicians won’t care. It’s down to us.”9

Unknown to Zeinab, her modest efforts have far-reaching implications in our contemporary world. In 2012 alone, Derek Thompson wrote, the world would generate “2.6 trillion pounds of garbage—the weight of about 7,000 Empire State Buildings”10 and that was predicted to reach “approximately 2.2 billion tonnes per year by 2025.”11 As the world population continues to balloon, getting a handle on safe management of daily garbage disposal is increasingly critical for public health, and even more so during an emergency.

Not only will existing collection and disposal systems be disrupted, but there will be extra waste caused by the emergency itself. Initially, for camps of displaced people or refugees and similar new sites, there will be no arrangements in place at all. If solid waste is not dealt with quickly, serious health risks will develop which will further demoralize the community already traumatized by the emergency.12

Thank you, Zeinab Mokalled from Lebanon, for your insight.


At the time of the devastating earthquake on 25 April 2015, almost half the households in Nepal had at least either one migrant abroad or a returnee, with nearly 88 percent of those being male.13 Consequently, after the disaster, women in rural communities found their contributions toward recovery efforts particularly gratifying. With so many men working abroad, reconstruction was slow as Nepal was facing “a lack of manpower at a crucial time.”14 Two years later it was still estimated that 60,000 skilled workers were needed to build earthquake-resistant houses in fourteen districts.15

That is when Sanumaya Kumal, her friends, and others broke with their cultural tradition of household chores to become trained in construction by national and international organizations to help rebuild damaged houses, and make them more earthquake resistant in a severely affected district north-west of Kathmandu. From carrying sand and bricks, to digging foundations, building walls, roof-fitting, and plastering, Sanumaya, who used to work on a farm, was thrilled with her new-found skill sets, now capable to “do everything that a male mason can do.”16

Today, over two years later, “the women say they are earning a decent living, as well as being happy that they are taking part in important national work” such as rebuilding schools and health centers as well.16 If this isn’t an exemplary story of what An Emergency Management Framework for Canada calls a “valuable opportunity to develop and implement measures to strengthen resilience,” then what is?

Thank you, Sanumaya Kumal from Nepal, for your determination and courage.

Women Warriors

We are accustomed to it by now. Every day, every single day, we hear disaster stories of some sort—whether human-caused, technological, or natural—and each one validates decades of reflection by competent authorities that commitment, actions and enforceable policies are no longer optional, they are an urgent imperative. The human race will not stop getting innovative in creating chaos and Mother Earth is unlikely to calm down, so, isn’t it time we do things differently? There are 50 percent of adult humans—women—who are more than willing to become full participants in disaster-related activities. By empowering them, we are ensuring a prerequisite for success in building better, sustainable resilience for their family and community. “Whatever her role, she achieves greatness by standing her ground and pushing for change. Women warriors possess as much strength, determination and fortitude as any man.”17 The time has arrived—now what?


The Bible, Romans 8:22.


B. Leipert, “Rural and Remote Women Developing Resilience to Manage Vulnerability,” in Rural Nursing: Concepts, Theory, and Practice, eds., H.J. Lee and C.A. Winters (New York: Springer, 2005), 79–95, 79.


L. Creel, “Ripple Effects: Population and Coastal Regions,” Population Reference Bureau, last accessed 10 September 2017, http://www.prb.org/Publications/Reports/2003/RippleEffectsPopulationandCoastalRegions.aspx.


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Integrated Coastal Area Management and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Rome: FAO, 1998), Part A, s. 1.1.


Government of Canada, Ministers Responsible for Emergency Management, An Emergency Management Framework for Canada—Third Edition (Ottawa: Public Safety Canada, Emergency Management Policy and Outreach Directorate, 2017), 7.


T. Smith, Climate Change Impacts on Coastal Communities, CoastAdapt Impact Sheet 13 (Queensland: National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 2016), 7.


United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 (18 March 2015), http://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/publications/43291.


United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision Key Findings and Advance Tables (New York: Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2017), 1.


N. Abou Mrad, “The 81-year-old Woman Inspiring a Nation to Recycle,” BBC News, 8 June 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40191270.


D. Thompson, “2.6 Trillion Pounds of Garbage: Where Does the World’s Trash Go?,” The Atlantic, June 7, 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/06/26-trillion-pounds-of-garbage-where-does-the-worlds-trash-go/258234/.


D. Hoornweg and P. Bhada-Tata, What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2012), 8.


J. Rouse and B. Reed, Solid Waste Management, Technical Notes on Drinking-Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Emergencies No. 7 (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2013), 7.1.


S. Sharma et al., State of Migration in Nepal, Research Paper VI (Kathmandu: Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, 2014).


S. Tamang, “How Nepal Quake Turned Women into Builders,” BBC News, 24 April 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39694171.


R. Samachar Samiti, “Shortage of Skilled Workers Affects Reconstruction Work,” The Himalayan Times, 7 January 2017, https://thehimalayantimes.com/nepal/shortage-of-skilled-workers-affects-reconstruction-work/.


Tamang, supra note 14.


“Are You a Woman Warrior?,” Keen, last accessed 31 January 2018, https://www.keen.com/articles/spiritual/are-you-a-woman-warrior.

  • Collapse
  • Expand