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date: 04 October 2022

Women at the Forefront of Civil Society Advocacy in Disaster Risk Reduction Governancefree

Women at the Forefront of Civil Society Advocacy in Disaster Risk Reduction Governancefree

  • Zenaida Delica-WillisonZenaida Delica-WillisonAdventist University of the Philippines and Center for Disaster Preparedness
  •  and Adelina Sevilla-AlvarezAdelina Sevilla-AlvarezCenter for Community Journalism and Development


Women as leaders, innovators, and trailblazers in promoting agendas to uplift society is an accepted fact. Worldwide, many have gained recognition and respect for their work in their spheres of advocacy. Nobel Prize–awardees Mother Teresa for charity and Malala Yousafzai for a child’s right to education are but two of the more universally recognizable exemplars of women who have reshaped worldwide advocacy for social upliftment.

Away from the global limelight, countless other women, individually and as representatives of different sectors, have been steadily reshaping the political, social, economic, and development environments without much fanfare over the last several decades. Many civil society organizations in different parts of the world became avenues for women when advocating various issues, for example, promoting policy development and reforms, rights claiming, defending democratic spaces, affirming economic welfare and well-being in numerous sectors, and upholding gender equality and inclusion. Women are truly at the forefront of civil society advocacies, including disaster risk reduction.

In the world of disaster risk reduction and development, women have become vanguards in promoting good disaster risk reduction governance. The role of women in advocating the mitigation or even elimination of disaster risks, as individuals or members and leaders of civil society organizations, must be viewed in the context of women who continue to balance home life and community work as challenges to be overcome Since the turn of the 21st century (and before), they speak with greater authority on disaster risk reduction, environmental governance, or sustainable development in the larger public sphere, which serves as a testament to their hard-won victory in making the world sit up and listen to those whose voices are least heard.


  • Risk Management
  • Gender Issues

Women of Change

Every year on March 8, women in different parts of the world commemorate International Women’s Day. Observed and celebrated in various ways, the common denominator is that it is a great opportunity to highlight the role of women in causing societal, economic, cultural, and political changes. International Women’s Day is one global covenant among women as they reiterate and renew their individual commitment to advance gender equality, women’s rights, women’s empowerment, and leadership. For many decades, women have been battling for the chance to exercise leadership in different platforms of society’s life, that is, leadership in public institutions, in the private sector, in parliaments, the judiciary, and seats of power.

Two landmark frameworks embody the commitment of the international community to provide better opportunities for women and girls. First, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995, pp 122–126 outlined women’s prioritization in leadership, expressed particularly in Strategic Objective G.1. to “take measures to ensure women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision making,” and G.2., to “increase women’s capacity to participate in decision-making and leadership.” (UN Women, 2014, pp. 122–126) . Second, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development underscored the need and urgency to achieve gender parity in leadership through Sustainable Development Goal, Target 5.5, which necessitates “women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life” (UN Women, 2020).

From these and other international policy developments, an enabling environment at the country level clearly needs to be created in a systematic manner that characterizes a shift in power imbalances driving gender inequality. The long and urgent call for inclusion is now shifting to transformation that requires the concerted effort of the whole society supporting women’s representation actively and with intentionality.

Additionally, women’s political participation has been shown to be particularly influential on women in their communities. Factors such as female voter turnout, female political participation, and public service responsiveness toward women have a positive relationship with the presence of women in decision-making positions across the public and private sectors (Burns et al., 2001).

Women’s parliamentary presence also has a role model effect. A study underscored the importance of women role models for individuals of all genders to normalize “the idea and practice of women holding power” (O’Neil et al., 2015, pp. 22–23). A 2012 study conducted in India explained that the increased proportion of women village leaders had closed the “aspiration gap” between girls and boys by nearly 25% and had eventually erased or reversed the gender gap in educational outcomes. Girls also began spending less time on household activities in areas with increased women’s leadership in the village (Beaman et al., 2012).

These role models can substantively affect future women’s representation. Following the 2018 general elections in Fiji, women accounted for 20% of the representation in Parliament (51 seats), a record high for the country. This is attributed to the role model effect of its first woman speaker of the house (Baker, 2019).

In a report published by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) in 2017, statistics were presented on representation of women in key leadership positions in the Philippine government and industry. In the Philippine Senate, for example, the number of female senators has been from three to six out of the 24 since 2001, showing Philippine Senate of the 15th and 16th Congresses have had the highest proportion of female representation. Moreover, since 1986, the end of the Marcos dictatorship, Filipinos have already installed two female presidents and two female vice presidents.

Women at the Vanguard

As indicated by UN Women and captured as a requisite in the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, women’s equal participation and leadership are essential in political and public life. But contrary to its significance, seats in executive government, in national parliaments, and in local government show that women are underrepresented at all levels of decision-making at the global level and realizing gender parity in political life is still far-fetched.

However, the gains of women in various positions are worth celebrating and a source of inspiration. There are women in executive government positions, yet, only 22 countries have had women as heads of state or the government while 119 countries have never had a woman leader. At the rate the situation is going, it is estimated that gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years, or until 2152. (UN Women Calculations in Facts and Figures: Women’s leadership and political participation, UN Women) Only 21% of government ministers are women, with only 14 countries achieving 50% or more women in cabinets (UN Women, 2020).

On the one hand, with an annual increase of just 0.52%, gender parity in ministerial positions will not be achieved before 2077. On the other hand, there are four countries that have 50% or more women in parliaments’ single or lower houses: Rwanda with 61%, Cuba with 53%, Bolivia with 53%, and United Arab Emirates with 50%. A further 19 countries have reached or surpassed 40%, including nine countries in Europe, five in Latin America and the Caribbean, four in Africa, and one in the Pacific. Globally, there are 27 states in which women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, including four single or lower chambers with no women at all (UN Women, 2020).

Particularly in local government, the data from 133 countries shows that women constitute 2.18 million (36%) of elected members in local deliberative bodies. Only two countries have reached 50%, and an additional 18 countries have more than 40% in local government. Regional variations are also noted for women’s representation in local deliberative bodies as of January 2020: eastern and Southeastern Asia, 25%; Latin America and the Caribbean, 25%; western Asia and northern Africa, 18% (UN Women, 2020).

The same 2017 PIDS report pointed out that although the Philippine Senates from 2010 to 2016, have had the highest proportion of female representation, women only occupy 25% of the upper chamber, and no female has ever assumed the rank of senate president or house speaker. More alarming, the PIDS report stated, is the situation in local elective offices, such as in the positions of governor, mayor, and lower elected positions, where women are underrepresented. In 2013, only 11% of elected local officials were female, a sharp decline from 20% in 2010, 18% in 2007, and 17% in 2004. At the barangay, or village, level, women occupied 19% and 27% of all barangay captain and councilperson posts, respectively. The 2017 PIDS report established a slight increase in the distribution of elected women: 16% senators, 28% congressmen, and 23% governors and mayors. Still, Filipino women remain sorely underrepresented in the highest positions in both the government and industry, where most important decisions are made and directions are set.

The balanced political participation and power sharing between men and women in decision-making is the internationally agreed target set in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Most countries in the world have not achieved gender balance, and few have set or met ambitious targets for gender parity (50-50). There is established and growing evidence that women’s leadership in political decision-making processes improves them. For example, the research on panchayats (local councils) in India discovered that the number of drinking water projects in areas with women-led councils was 62% higher than in those with men-led councils. In Norway, a direct causal relationship between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage was found (UN Women, 2020).

Women demonstrate political leadership by working across party lines through parliamentary women’s caucuses—even in the most politically combative environments—and by championing issues of gender equality, such as the elimination of gender-based violence, parental leave and childcare, pensions, gender-equality laws, and electoral reform (UN Women, 2020).

In the words of a UN Women executive director, there is “universal and catastrophic lack of representation of women’s interests” in all areas where decisions are made. The uncomfortable truth is that trying to shift a power balance is often faced with immediate resistance. Until recently, decisions in both crisis and non-crisis situations were mostly made by male-led institutions. This long-standing power imbalance is held in place by structural inequalities, discriminatory social norms, and social and economic disparities (UNDP, 2021).

Gains and Pains

In the Philippines and other parts of the world, it may not be unusual for women to hold leadership positions, but statistics in general reveal persistent gender gaps and a clear dearth of female representation in senior or lead positions.

One barrier to women’s political participation and leadership is time use. Women spend up to four times as much time on unpaid care work than men in the Asia region, precluding them from economic and political participation (International Labour Organization [ILO], 2018). Unpaid care work is one of the primary reasons that women cannot enter politics (Tadros, 2014).

Furthermore, studies have also indicated that social norms often create preferences for women candidates with household profiles (e.g., married and with children), which creates a double bind for women (Teele et al., 2018). Thus, women have to combat the dual norms of care work and ostensibly desirable traits in female candidates.

The pursuit of greater female representation in the realm of governance is carried further in the desire to sustain development gains in gender equality in the field of disaster risk reduction (DRR) and in building disaster resilience.

Although disasters have multiple consequences for both women and men, the reality is that disasters worldwide impact women differently because of their unique status, roles, and responsibilities in society. Particularly in developing countries, the stark difference in vulnerabilities, exposure, needs, and capacities are sharper in focus. For example, Filipino women are typically more vulnerable and are worse affected by disasters than men due to their added domestic and maternal responsibilities, limited access to resources, fewer livelihood opportunities, and restricted mobility especially in rural areas. Their husbands are farmers with no land to till and who look for jobs that cannot be found. Women who have fewer resources and facilities than before the disaster struck— no income, poor shelter, very limited water, few toilets— are hit harder. Yet they are expected to carry out their traditional responsibilities while dealing with a disaster (Delica-Willison, 1998).

In addition, however, these same women in the Philippines, as shown in successive natural hazards ranging from volcanic eruptions to earthquakes and super typhoons that ravage the country, have demonstrated their ability to manage and surmount evolving challenges brought about by hazard threats and disasters. In many cases and instances, they have cooperated or are in the forefront in initiating humanitarian actions together with their male counterparts. In the process they were able to reduce their own vulnerabilities and increase their capacities. In one report called “Review of Gender Equality in Disaster Risk Reduction and Management” published in 2014 by authors Abarquez and Parreño (2014, p. 26) it was mentioned that

another window of opportunity for promoting gender equality is the growing sensitivity of development agencies and workers to gender issues in disaster risk reduction and management (Oxfam GB 2012). This has resulted to more women being involved in community-based disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) actions, from planning to leadership in evacuation centers. There are also rehabilitation programs which integrated measures to meet not only women’s practical and immediate needs for housing, food and livelihood but also achieve their strategic goals.

It can be said that there are hindrances to a paradigm shift that ultimately requires full acceptance and support of women’s role as leaders in a society. The creation of an enabling environment that amplifies women’s voices and promotes participation and leadership in public institutions, parliaments, the judiciary, and the private sector is needed.

Civil society is one sector that has a crucial and complementary role to play in building local, national, and global coalitions for change. Civil society provides the extra effort needed to engage women and men alike from all backgrounds to boost the spirit of participation and involvement of citizens at community levels. This is done through public awareness, capacity building, training, and skills education, complementing the advocacy role that society has embarked on to address the root causes of vulnerability.

Civil Society’s Role

Civil society throughout history has taken the role of leading great movements of change, including civil rights, gender equality, and other parity movements. Civil society demonstrates its best qualities when people at all levels of society adopt an idea. Over time, changes are fostered in power structures, and new prevailing wisdoms are infused into society, families, courts, and businesses.

Societies change. They are shaped by world events, struggles, and creative, technological, and economic advances. Civil society provides an avenue to engage productively in this process—to keep tabs on new developments and partner with organizations working for the common good (Shaw, 2020).

In various ways, civil society organizations contribute to societal development. It may take the form of empowering communities through amplifying the voice of the unorganized and voiceless segments of the society. It may be by ensuring good governance that in real terms ensures working hand in hand with the government, collaborating to develop policy and reforms, and implementing new strategies. And, definitely, through social accountability that encompasses making institutions accountable for their actions.

Based on history and the contribution of civil society through various movements of advocating social change, the many ways to get involved in social change efforts became enticing and inspiring for many who dreamed of making this world a better place to live. In becoming involved in civil society, one may serve different purposes and endeavors. These include the following: (a) Being an expert in the field one cares about, that is, conducting studies or research continuously, and developing deep knowledge on a subject. They may serve as a consultant, on research councils, or as part of think tanks. Aside from providing knowledge, they can provide training activities, advocate education and teaching, or build new communication networks based on one’s area of expertise. (b) An ambassador, or liaison, to the people, entails being the voice for underrepresented communities. They often take the role of delivering services, and they are not afraid “to get their hands dirty” working on complex issues such as disaster risk reduction and management, hunger, and pandemics. (c) An innovator is energized by the idea of developing new solutions to intractable social issues; they are often characterized as people who trust their instincts. Part of their role is to serve as idea incubators, that is, holding onto problems that may take time to resolve. They may also work on practical solutions, which may be finding new ways of working or doing things, or they may devote their creative energy to technology, which may include creating new social media or advocacy platforms (Shaw, 2020).

According to Ingram (2020), civil society comprises organizations that are not associated with government—including schools and universities, advocacy groups, professional associations, churches, and cultural institutions (business sometimes is covered by the term civil society and sometimes not). Civil society organizations play multiple roles. They are an important source of information for both citizens and government. They monitor government policies and actions and hold government accountable. They engage in advocacy and offer alternative policies for government, the private sector, and other institutions. They deliver services, especially to the poor and underserved. They defend citizen rights and work to change and uphold social norms and behaviors.

The civil society in the Philippines is known as one of the most vibrant and active in Asia, with its high level of participation in promoting issues and concerns, especially those of the local communities. The term civil society entered the Philippine development language in late 1980s following the political upheaval in Eastern Europe. But long before that, the country had witnessed the formation of private nonprofit organizations and voluntary organizations or nongovernment organizations. During the Spanish colonial period that lasted a little over 300 years, philanthropy groups and cooperative organizations were set up by the Filipino ilustrado, members of the middle-class wealthy enough to travel and be educated in Spain where they were exposed to liberal ideas. Various church denominations also formed private schools, community hospices, and religious associations especially in the rural areas (ADB Reports, 2007).

The first generation of nongovernment organizations (NGOs) was created in late 1940s. Organizations included were those working for the implementation of socioeconomic services for farmers, the labor force, unwed mothers, and abandoned children. Notable charitable organizations provided education and health services that were either established or managed by women.

Radical organizations were founded in the 1960s that pushed for more fundamental changes in society. However, there was very little space for civil society during the Marcos dictatorship (1965–1986). But NGOs had to step into the role in areas where there was a felt need for government presence: building strong relationships among poor communities, organizing to assist sectors in terms of their social and economic needs, and promoting participation of the local communities on charting the course of their future (CIVICUS, 2011)

Many of these NGOs contributed to the ousting of Ferdinand Marcos, which ended the 21 years of dictatorial rule. As a result, in the democratic space opened by the election of Corazon Aquino as president to replace the ousted Marcos, there was a resurgence of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations,. It was during this period that civil society organizations began to be recognized as key players and partners in governance.

After the 1986 generally peaceful “People Power” revolution, the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines was ratified through a nationwide plebiscite. It contained specific provisions about the promotion of “non-governmental, community-based or sectoral organizations” (Art. II, Sect. 23) by the state, the role of “independent people’s organizations” to pursue their collective interests (Art. XIII, Sect. 15), and “the right of people and their organizations to participate in decision-making” (Art. XIII, Sect. 16). This highlights the importance given to people’s participation and the role of civil society in nation-building.

Civil society during this period, defined as an amalgamation of NGOs, was also transforming and consolidating its ranks. It embraced and widened its constituency to include community-based and people’s organizations, cooperatives, homeowners’ associations, religious or faith-based organizations, media NGOs, and socio-civic foundations, including those from the business sector. Such was the contribution of civil society to the restoration of democracy and community building in the Philippines. Its role was again institutionalized in the Local Government Code of 1991, or the Republic Act 7160. The law provided for a more responsive and accountable local government structure instituted through a system of decentralization underscoring people’s participation at various local-government levels.

A 1990 assessment of civil society organizations showed that among the active members of these organizations 50% were women. The same assessment also showed that the ratio for women’s participation was 1.00, which means that their representation in civil society was equal to their proportion in the population of a given community. There is civic participation especially at the barangay, or village, level. Filipino cultural values, especially among women, provided opportunities that allowed them to become readily engaged in responding to social issues (Caucus of Development NGO Networks, 2011)

To reiterate, civil society is the ecosystem that influences social change outside the family, market, or government. It is often referred to as the space where people act for the common good, as civil society aims to connect poor or marginalized people with groups that can mobilize support (Shaw, 2020). One notable experience at both regional and global levels is the case of influencing the crafting of the global agenda on disaster reduction at the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction (UNWCDR) in 2005, where there were two different tracks prevailing: one side was the government, and the other side was civil society. The civil society representatives in this global event did not want to miss the opportunity to increase their impact in the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005–2015). They issued a statement that was read in the main plenary closing event. The statement, which was featured in the UNWCDR proceedings, states:

We have the responsibility to translate the world’s grief and compassion into lasting commitments. In this conference there are government delegates and representatives from civil society. The translation of the ideals of the conference into political action is the task of the governments, but the responsibility of us all. This statement comes from those of us in civil society who want to see the vision of the conference turned into action that makes a real difference to people, especially the most vulnerable people over the next ten years. We are almost at the end of the conference. Have we lived up to the expectations of those we represent? Can we go home and look the disaster victims and the people who came to their help in the eyes?

It also stated:

As it is now, it is a framework of vision and not a framework for action! We have the knowledge for disaster reduction, what we need is the action. The most important condition for disaster reduction is the political commitment to remove the institutional barriers and integrate disaster risk reduction in the strategies and programmes for sustainable development and poverty reduction. The years since the Yokohama strategy have confirmed the vital importance of disaster risk reduction. The problem was the lack of serious political commitment to institutionalise this vision into action. Disaster risk reduction has stayed in the margins of the relief structures. It must be incorporated in the Millennium Development Goals. The international community has prioritised health and education as basic needs. It is the time to do the same with disaster risk reduction. We can and must reduce the numbers of people being killed and affected, and we must reduce the damage as proportion of the GDP. Disaster risk reduction is an essential element of development. In the next year you need to formulate targets and earmark funding to be able to take accountable and transparent action. It must have been terrible to be the seismologist who saw the tsunami happening on his computer-screen and was powerless to act. We urge you to make sure that the outcome document guarantees sustained political commitment that translates into concrete action that will make the world a safer place for all.

Prior to the UNWCDR, there were relevant organized events, for example the international symposium on Community Risk Management—A Living Legacy, which gathered more than 200 visitors, including disaster-management experts from 18 countries. The main resource speaker was a woman head of a civil society organization (CSO) (coauthor of this article) promoting community-based disaster risk management (CBDRM), which was carried through to the UNWCDR. The advocate stressed that the

CBDRM approach requires political will at the national and province level to formulate new policies and guidelines and allocate resources to institutionalise mechanisms that support risk management activities. Policy-making should be more bottom-up than the usual case, with greater stress on what can be learned from community risk management successes and how best to enable, sustain and scale it up an all-inclusive approach.

(Delica-Willison, 2004, pp. 109–113)

Both CBDRM and an all-inclusive approach were embedded in both the Hyogo Framework for Action and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Reduction.

The outcome document of the UNWCDR as stated in Hyogo declaration #2 states:

We recognize the intrinsic relationship between disaster reduction, sustainable development and poverty eradication, among others, and the importance of involving all stakeholders, including governments, regional and international organizations and financial institutions, civil society, including non-governmental organizations and volunteers, the private sector and the scientific community. We therefore welcome all the relevant events that took place and contributions made in the course of the Conference and its preparatory process.

Likewise, the Hyogo Framework for Action reaffirmed the 23rd special session of the General Assembly on the topic “Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century”

(United Nations General Assembly[UNGA], 2000).

The Hyogo Framework for Action stated “a gender perspective should be integrated into all disaster risk management policies, plans and decision-making processes, including those related to risk assessment, early warning, information management, and education and training.” Advocacy works, be it at the national or international levels, but it takes time and the process is long.

Whether in crisis or in peace, civil society is an essential building block in the development of national cohesion. In a country blessed with peace and stability, civil society fills the space untouched by government and the private sector. In a fragile and conflict-ridden country, it plays an even more important role by providing services normally the responsibility of the state and businesses, and it can lay the foundation for reconciliation (Ingram, 2020).

Disaster Risk Reduction as a Sustainable Development Concern

The United Kingdom’s Sustainable Development Commission, closed in 2011, was a good institution for the government to account for ensuring the needs of society, the economy, and the environment were properly balanced in the decisions it made and the way it ran itself. For the Commission, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (UK Sustainable Development Commission, 2000) Sustainable development is interpreted differently, but its core approach is to balance different and even competing needs with an awareness of the environmental, social, and economic limitations the society faces.

Disaster risk reduction (DRR) is one of the essential tenets of sustainable development. A part of it is finding better ways of doing things both for the present and the future. The poor planning of communities may reduce the quality of life of the people living in that community. Being not prepared for hazards turning into disasters may likely result in having losses in lives and livelihoods in a community, as well as loss of or damage to infrastructure.

There was a dramatic shift from regarding women as a passive group to seeing a growing number of women at the forefront in advancing innovative ways of building safe and resilient communities. It has largely become the norm in the realm of DRR, whether at the village or national level. This was amply demonstrated when the national capital region of the Philippines was inundated by floodwaters generated by the tropical storm in 2009. The event also highlighted the impact of women-led initiatives in reducing risk at various levels and in helping push the passage of the country’s disaster risk reduction and management law.

When Tropical Storm Ondoy (international name Ketsana) struck the Philippines on September 25, 2009, the rains it brought submerged large areas of metro Manila, a densely populated, urban metropolis that serves as the social, political, and economic center of the Philippines. Ondoy was described as the second most devastating tropical cyclone of the 2009 Pacific typhoon season. According to the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical Astronomical Services Administration (2009), the tropical storm dumped 455 mm of rain in a span of 24 hours, the most in 42 years. It also killed 740 people and caused US$6 billion in infrastructure damage and economic losses. This disaster event triggered heightened cooperation among NGOs

A number of years earlier, the Center for Disaster Preparedness, a CSO focusing on disaster and development, organized forums attended by various individuals and NGOs to initiate discussion on the possible formation of a broad-based network on DRR advocacy. From this emerged the Philippine Disaster Management Forum (PDMF), a platform to discuss issues and challenges on the implementation of CBDRM. The first Philippines conference on CBDRM was held in November 2002 with community partners of organizations involved in the PDMF interacting with national and local government agencies. CBDRM further evolved and became popularly referred to as community-based disaster risk reduction and management (CBDRRM).

The PDMF evolved in June 2008 into the Disaster Risk Reduction Network Philippines (DRRNetPhils). The network, initially composed of 11 main conveners, saw its membership quickly increase to more than 60 local and international NGOs and individuals engaged in disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) work1. It is worth noting that most of the leaders of the organizations within the network were women.

Stunned by the devastation brought about by Tropical Storm Ondoy, the Network sought the support of some legislators, and together they crafted a bill on DRR. This was largely adopted by both lower and upper houses of Congress and consolidated into the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act (Republic Act 10121) passed and ratified in May 2010.

RA 10121 modernizes the Philippine disaster management system, shifts the focus from emergency relief and response to disaster prevention and risk reduction, provides a responsive and proactive manner of addressing disasters through a National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management framework that prioritizes on community level DRRM focusing on the most vulnerable sectors, strengthens local capacities, ensures broad-based and greater participation from civil society, and addresses the root causes of disaster risks.

The passage of the law was a resounding victory for civil society in articulating a people-focused, community-based, DRRM framework that ensures broad sectoral participation at all levels. As the new law stated, the “enabling environment for substantial and sustainable participation of CSOs, private groups, volunteers and communities shall be created, and their contributions in the government’s risk reduction efforts be recognized” (Sec. 9.I).

As the CSOs continued to pursue its critical role in Philippine society, these CSOs from 1980s had started promoting CBDRRM to their national and international partners and donors, which had been funding more and more CBDRRM projects and programs in the Philippines. In the early 1990s, the NGOs saw the need to partner with other NGOs and faith-based networks and coalitions to form a wider alliance that would push the multifaceted disaster risk reduction agenda. This encompassed a broad range of activities from addressing unsafe conditions to analyzing the root causes of vulnerability. Thus, the Inter-Agency Network of NGOs for Disaster Response was born, and it is composed of 10 big NGOs, consortia, and faith-based agencies. However, different expectations and approaches to DRR hobbled the coalition’s advocacy, and it was generally limited to generating resources for emergency responses.

While working at the local and national level, women leaders in the NGOs and the Network were participating in regional and international discussions on DRR at the same time. It was very important for the Philippines to advocate the inclusion of the CBDRRM theory and practice in the global agenda, which paralleled efforts of other countries. CBDRRM was embedded in the Hyogo Framework of Action (2005–2015) and in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015–2030).

Community involvement and participation have been recognized all over the world as the key to effective disaster reduction. Parallel initiatives in various regions promoted community-based approaches in DRR as means to rectify the practice of a top-down approach in DRR and development planning and the focus on emergency management, instead of a comprehensive disaster risk reduction approach. The communities’ important role was considered paramount in DRR practice. After all, disasters are local, first affecting local communities, which in turn are the first to deal with hazards and disaster events. The key to effectiveness is increased self-confidence of vulnerable communities through meaningful participation based on a community-based approach, with the goal of transforming vulnerable or at-risk communities to disaster resilient communities.

CBDRRM is anchored in the DRR framework, and CBDRRM covers a broad range of interventions, measures, activities, projects, and programs to reduce disaster risks, which are primarily designed by people in at-risk localities and are based on their urgent needs and capacities. Simply put, CBDRRM aims to (a) reduce vulnerabilities and increase the capacities of vulnerable groups and communities to cope with, prevent, or minimize loss and damage to life, property, and environment; (b) minimize human suffering; and (c) hasten recovery. Through CBDRRM, vulnerable groups and communities can be transformed to disaster resilient communities, which can withstand and recover from stresses and shocks caused by the natural or physical and socioeconomic political environment.

NAMAHIN: A Case Narrative of Empowered Filipino Women

When women are capacitated and empowered, they take on the cudgels to translate their knowledge and skills into action and work for the transformation of their fellow community members. This was the striking experience of the women of NAMAHIN2.

After participating in the Gender and Development Summit in 2012, the women members of Nagkahiusang Mangingisda sa Hinatuan (NAMAHIN), loosely translated in English as Hinatuan’s Fisherfolk in Solidarity, were ready to help manage the mangrove areas in their municipality in Hinatuan in Surigao del Sur in Southern Mindanao, Philippines. NAMAHIN has been certified as a member of the national network of local formations managing marine areas since 2002 through the help of the Center for Empowerment and Resource Development, a national-based, nongovernmental, development organization established to address the needs of fisherfolks to effectively manage marine and coastal resources.

Guided by their organization’s mission of “protecting the wealth of their seas and land to ensure the future of the next generation,” they responded to address and resolve the issues and problems about coastal resources management and gender, to improve the quality of livelihoods, and to push for the rights of women and men. The women took it upon themselves to make good use of what they learned, organized the women of their communities, supervised the growth of the mangroves, and initiated the clean-up and reforestation of the mangrove areas, including setting up sanctuaries. As clearly articulated by the president of the federation: “Mangroves are our source of livelihood in the island. We have to protect them because they serve as our own protector, the buffer or breakers when typhoons come . . . they preserve our own life.”

After almost 8 years of community engagement, the women of NAMAHIN could not help but proudly share their accomplishments in coastal resource management, waste management, DRRM, and gender mainstreaming in the planning and budgeting process. The federation’s president proclaimed:

We have established eight sanctuaries comprising around 477 hectares, and these are now managed by our chapter organizations. NAMAHIN has formulated the Disaster Management Manual of Hinatuan, and we are using this in the conduct of DRR-Climate Change Adaptation orientations and workshops. Our members are active in assisting households in barangays (villages) covered by NAMAHIN and its partner-organizations in drafting their respective Disaster Preparedness Plans.

The other federation members echoed “of the many hectares of mangroves that we have assisted in establishing, we are proudest to say that these are 90 percent women-managed mangroves!”

NAMAHIN was proclaimed a finalist in the 2015 UNDP Equator Prize that recognized the federation’s efforts in advancing local sustainable development solutions in building resilient communities. It also won the prestigious Philippine Gawad Kalasag (Shield Award) Hall of Fame Award for having been named first place winner as the Best Performing CSO in Disaster Risk Reduction and Management category for three consecutive years, from 2016 to 2018.

The NAMAHIN women, however, are quick to add that their journey has not been, and will never be, smooth and easy. For one, they are still lobbying for the adoption of the Barangay Ordinance on Women-Managed Mangrove Areas at the municipal and provincial levels. They need to undertake more information, education, and communication campaigns covering more communities on the importance of mangroves as a risk reduction measure. It is not always easy to get the support of the barangay local government units in the implementation of the Community-Based Forest Management Agreement. The illegal cutting of mangroves continues to this day.

Through the years, the successes of CSOs with women at the heart of it are victories for the benefit of the marginalized and vulnerable sections of the population all over the world. The established role of civil society and the women’s movement and their empowerment in different countries and regions of the world need to be sustained to preserve the gains and to continue addressing the challenges along the way.

Gendered Perspective of Disaster Risk Reduction

Climate change has been impacting disaster risks in two ways: by increasing the frequency and severity of weather and climate hazards, and increasing communities’ overall vulnerability to these hazards through factors such as ecosystem degradation, reduction in water and food availability, and changes in livelihoods.

The poorest and most marginalized demographics are hit the hardest during disasters. Women and girls who are exposed to climate-related disaster risks are likely to suffer higher rates of mortality, morbidity, and economic damage to their livelihoods. Women bring unique experiences and valuable skills that would benefit disaster risk mitigation and preparedness. By recognizing and promoting the unique capacities of women, one can simultaneously further community resilience and advance gender equality (UNDP, 2021). These skills are not acknowledged or tapped into sufficiently. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) (2008) (now the UN Office for Disaster Reduction, or UNDRR) clearly stated that increased awareness of the drivers, pressures, stressors, and opportunities associated with climate-related disasters is key to finding smart pathways to reduce and manage disasters. It is therefore imperative that DRR and management strategies are gender aware, taking into account both gender-based vulnerabilities and women’s unique contributions.

In many ways, disasters have multiple consequences for both males and females. The socioeconomic, political, and cultural spheres existing in society negatively affect women and girls more than men and boys. The constraints of gender inequalities of women and girls are decisions that affect their lives and access to available resources. A gendered perspective of DRR provides a vantage ground to identify distinctive strengths and weaknesses and specific capacities and vulnerabilities to prevent, mitigate, prepare for, confront, and respond and recover from the negative impact of disasters.

The former chief of the UNDRR in Asia and the Pacific spoke of this:

Given the opportunity and with strong resolve, women will make things happen. Women at the forefront of civil society advocacy in disaster risk reduction governance captures the essence of women’s resourcefulness, often leveraging very limited resources to achieve great impact in DRR governance. The Asian Disaster Response and Reduction Network (ADRRN) and the Global Network for Disaster Reduction, later renamed as Global Network of Civil Society Organizations for Disaster Reduction (GNDR), are the very examples to the argument. Their voices influenced disaster reduction at different levels during the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005–2015). Their first-hand knowledge enabled them to contribute to the formulation of the Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction (2015–2030). They have made themselves invaluable regional and international networks of civil society, with clear shared visions and principles in promoting local action on risk-informed development.

In 2002, two motivated women from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs facilitated the establishment of the Asian Disaster Response and Reduction Network, a network of NGOs in Asian countries. In the years since its establishment, the network has developed into an important force of DRR governance at different levels in Asia. In 2007, a consultation meeting was held in the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in Geneva. to facilitate the establishment of the Global Network of Civil Society Organizations for Disaster Reduction (GNDR). This was initiated by two inspired women from UNISDR and UNDP. The primary objective of the meeting was to enable NGOs to reach a consensus on the added value of working together to increase their voice and impact in the field of disaster reduction (K. Fengmin personal communication, 2021). This initiative matched the thinking of the NGOs’ representatives who were at the UNWCDR 2005.

The main challenges in setting up the networks were to build trust among different NGOs and to promote the networks. To overcome the challenges, several more consultation meetings were held during the succeeding UN Global Platform meetings. Asian Disaster Response and Reduction Network became one of the first members of the GNDR. GNDR is given a space to read its statement during every UN Global Platform meeting, which happen every 2 years. GNDR enjoys great respect because of its competence in DRR and its contributions to DRR governance at all levels. One piece of its agenda is promoting women leaders to address gender inequality at the heart of disaster risk. In 2021, GNDR had 1,622 NGOs and Civil Society Organizations operating across 128 countries.

GNDR’s current Global Board is composed of around 58% women and is chaired by a woman. Its advocacy pursues the tri-goals of strengthening collaboration, solidarity, and mobilization of CSOs; championing a localization movement; and striving for risk-informed development. In the words of Farah Kabir, chair of the Global Board:

Together, let us ensure that the views and voices of the people most at risk are heard, and that their experience, knowledge and expertise are used to influence policies and practices that make a positive impact at the local level.

(GNDR, 2020 p. 5)

Embracing New Challenges, Celebrating the Victories

The global health emergency or pandemic, triggered by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) 2, the virus that causes COVID 19, has put women from all walks of life in an extraordinary situation. They are pushed to their limits as a result of a difficult situation whether in work from home arrangement or in the workplace. As they lead teams in their work, they are at the same time attending to the needs of their child at home, or actively serving as pandemic front liners like the nurses and health workers in varied settings.

In other situations or contexts, women in different parts of the world may likely have lost their jobs, increased their time spent on unpaid household work and childcare or may likely be experiencing violence at home than prior pandemic. The women who have lost jobs during the period maybe twice the rate of men during the pandemic. Women spend three times more than men on unpaid care and domestic work each day. Violence has also increased significantly with the stay-at-home orders, office closures and other mandates—in some countries up to 70% compared before the pandemic (Bear & Agner, 2021).

The pandemic response cases and examples contribute to the body of knowledge that supports having women at the top, leading the leaders, is really beneficial to everyone. The Harvard Business School (2021) study has shown women leaders have measurable impact on the bottom line, with venture capital firms that hired more female partners showing increased profitability. The presence of women leaders in national, local and community level governance leads to an increase in policymaking that advances rights, promotes equality, and improves quality of life for those overlooked in society.

According to the World Health Organization (2019), “women deliver global health and men lead it.” Women make up 70% of the global health workforce, yet women from middle- and low-income countries make up only 5% of leaders at global health organizations. In the largest 100 U.S. hospitals, only 33% of executive positions are held by women, and only 25% of African ministers of health are women. In a study on the absence of women in the response to Covid-19, the humanitarian NGO CARE found that only 24% of the positions on national-level committees established were held by women.

As the World Health Organization concludes, “women, as the majority of the global health and social care workforce, are the drivers of global health.” It is time to change the narrative, and time to move beyond women’s nominal representation and actively seek women’s advancement to positions at the head of the table.

When provided with the opportunity, women display their knowledge and ability to lead efforts that have a different focus of concern, such as compassion, fairness, and equity, that highlights the nature of delivery. When women sit at the head of the table, there is the clear likelihood that the differentiated and often disproportionate social and economic impacts of the pandemic on women may be addressed.

A woman heading the table makes a lot of difference in terms of addressing the compounding effects of the pandemic on gender-based violence, reproductive health services, childcare, and so on, along with direct Covid-19 response, recognizing the importance of addressing these compounding effects to women’s resilience and ability to recover from this crisis(Bear & Agner, 2021).

As the world remains predominantly determined by gender, the perspectives of those being served should be given paramount significance by those who are in charge. As has been shown in some countries, global female leaders, who worked hard to get through the Covid-19 pandemic, need to be recognized and multiplied. The crisis provides an opportune time for women to advance into senior leadership roles in reducing global health risks.

The significance of CSOs through the years has established women to be at the heart of them. It is a victory achieved for the benefit of the marginalized and vulnerable sections of the population all over the world. The established role of civil society and empowered women’s movement in different countries and regions of the world needs to be sustained to preserve the gains and to continue addressing the challenges along the way.

The international community must use its voice, its networks, and its leverage to speak up in defense of civil society and women leaders, including human rights defenders who face everyday intimidation, repression, and security risks. Diplomatic channels may well be utilized where necessary, engaging the duty of states to protect and combat impunity. This may be done by demanding effective investigations of human rights abuses and criminal proceedings in cases of crimes against human rights defenders and other civil society actors.

Both civil society and the women’s movement are creating spaces for advocacy, mutual learning, and exchange at the country level. At the same time, these are linked with civic movements with other actors and stakeholders both upward into the political sphere and downward to individual citizens. The needed support to international CSO platforms and multistakeholder groups is crucial. Whatever exchanges that need to happen should be based on power analysis to ensure that the most marginalized voices are also heard. Exchanges and networking events could also be used to discuss issues related to shrinking civic space. This is to establish joint strategies for the creation of an enabling environment for civil society participation and a clear communication strategy that shows the public benefits of a strong civil society, thereby helping CSOs bolster their communities’ support.

The independent and pluralist civil society complemented by heightened women’s movements contribute to the pursuit of the right to dissent, especially with the gradual closing of democratic and civic space in many countries in the early 2020s. It is important to recognize the value of preserving civic space, and this needs to be supported by an international movement of collaborators and partners.

As societies keep changing, they are shaped by world events and struggles, and creative, technological, and economic advances. Civil society and the women’s movement is the right avenue for engagement, contributing to shape new developments and a new order in collaboration and in partnership with organizations working for change and the common good.


Today, the gains made by women in DRR governance through civil society advocacy find resonance with others taking the same journey. They provide important lessons drawn from long struggles for respect and recognition, especially when building broad consensus in the advocacy continuum of DRR.

At the intersection of government and civil society perspectives on DRR at the local, national, and international levels, women leaders have found themselves untangling often deep-seated differences and divergence in processes, methodologies, and even in ways of thinking. But, as had been shown by the experience of NAMAHIN in Mindanao, Philippines, and GNDR with an international office in the United Kingdom, it took the forceful but convincing efforts of women from civil society to hammer out consensual agreements and build cross-sectoral alliances.

This is further demonstrated by the passage of the Philippine law on DRR wherein CSO women leaders were at the forefront in lobbying the two houses of Congress for its crafting and adoption. Women’s role was recognized by the Philippine government by presenting them the Gawad Kalasag, or Shield Award, such as what was given to the NAMAHIN and to one of the authors of this article, who was awarded in 2018 for her pioneering work in CBDRRM and leadership in the advocacy at the local and international levels. “Through her leadership, she has inspired many development workers to dedicate their lives to helping communities reduce their disaster risks” (Bhatt & Gaillard, 2020). In October 2021, Jazmin Aguisanda-Jerusalem of the Leyte Center for Development, a member of the DRRNetPhilippines and the Citizens Disaster Response Network, was chosen as one of the 10 finalists for Excellence Award by the Women’s International Network for Disaster Risk Reduction. She has worked with vulnerable communities in Samar and Leyte provinces, in the Philippines, organizing and equipping community members with knowledge and skills on disaster preparedness, response, and mitigation.

One of the emergent roles of women in advocacy governance was to address complex conditions, issues, and processes in DRR such as the multilayered and multifactor dimension of people’s and communities’ vulnerability to both natural and human-induced hazards. All these link to the issue of policy coherence, which is key for the creation of an enabling environment for civil society participation. Policy coherence for sustainable and just development means putting the rights of the poorest and most marginalized members of society, the protection of human rights, and the protection of the environment center stage across all policy realms. It means creating economic, tax, and trade policies that benefit the most the vulnerable instead of the elites and corporations. It means more inclusive, people-centered migration and security policies that treat all human beings with dignity and respect. It means climate policies that acknowledge the seriousness and urgency of the current predicament and that recognize that those who have contributed the least to the crisis are the hardest hit by it.

Society needs women leaders. Women have a right to participate fully and equally in public and political life and bring their unique experience to public debates and decisions. Power needs to shift to women. Women’s participation in public and political spheres is more than sheer numbers. For women to shape laws and practices, they need to have real influence over decisions.

To create an equal future for women, systems of discrimination have to be transformed so that women can make decisions at every level to challenge gender roles, stereotypes, attitudes, and beliefs and mobilize women and girls to influence decisions made by those in power.

On the basis of what was achieved by both civil society and the women’s movement, together as a global movement with one voice, it can create spaces for women to speak out and claim their rights. Women can be supported to gain the confidence, skills, and knowledge to represent women; women representation can be improved in local leadership as this is where many decisions affecting women’s lives are made. Decision-makers can be held to account to ensure that they respond to women’s priorities and needs, including women with disabilities and those from lower classes or castes, and last but not the least, work with communities to challenge attitudes toward women.

Author Note

For more than 30 years, the authors have been thoroughgoing advocates and prime movers of civil society organizations at varying levels in various capacities.

Zenaida Delica-Willison was for 10 years (1989–1998) the executive director of the pioneering disaster risk reduction nongovernment organization in the Philippines, the Citizens Disaster Response Center (CDRC). CDRC is the secretariat of the Citizens Disaster Response Network (CDRN), a national network of 18 regional centers, engaged in implementing programs and projects related to reducing vulnerabilities and increasing capacities at the community level, termed now as community-based disaster risk reduction and management (CBDRRM). Both the network and the secretariat propagated the principle and practice of the CBDRRM locally and internationally. In 1999, Delica-Willison cofounded the Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP), complementing the work of the CDRC and CDRN in the area of capacity development and advocacy. She pursued advocating safer communities even when she joined the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC), where she directed regional trainings, and the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation, where she organized the South-South Community Based Development Academy. Her work was recognized when she was awarded the 2013 Mary Fran Myers Gender and Disaster Award. In 2017, she was one of the 14 finalists of the Sasakawa Award. She was also recognized during the 20th Gawad KALASAG (Philippines) National Awards Search for Excellence in Disaster Risk Reduction and Management and Humanitarian Assistance with Special Recognition for Individual Category. She was awarded

for her pioneering work in Community Based Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (CBDRRM) in the Philippines since 1988 developing framework, discourse and processes to put communities at the forefront of disaster risk reduction and management; For bringing Philippines CBDRRM experience into an international awareness; For training community leaders, public servants and private Individuals in the concept and practice of proactive and development-oriented disaster risk reduction and management: For promoting the engagement and active participation of the vulnerable sectors through fostering multi sectoral partnership: and, For her inspiring leadership that led many development workers to dedicate their lives to helping communities reduce their disaster risks.

Adelina Sevilla Alvarez cofounded the Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD), where she designs and implements advocacy and training programs for community journalists throughout the Philippines. Since she got involved in documenting the plight of internal refugees, she has been active in the disaster risk reduction arena, nurturing the formation of the Disaster Risk Reduction Network Philippines (DRRNetPhils) in 2008 into what it is now— a national platform for DRRM policy development and advocacy, research, knowledge management and capacity-building, networking, and alliance-building among disaster risk reduction advocates and practitioners. CCJD works closely with the CDP.

Since 2011, representing the DRRNetPhils, Adelina is an evaluator/validator for the Gawad KALASAG: Search for Excellence in the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management and Humanitarian Assistance.

Further Reading

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  • Sevilla-Alvarez, A., & Batario R. (2017). Generating multi-sector insights and recommendations for RA 10121 Sunset Review 2016–2017 [Field notes from Samar, Leyte and Zamboanga: Four stories dealing with disasters]. A compilation of case narratives on people’s resilience after experiencing Typhoon Ondoy (International name: Ketsana). The Asia Foundation.
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  • Victoria, L. (2008). Community-based disaster management in the Philippines: Making a difference in people’s lives. Philippine Disaster Management Forum.


  • Abarquez, I., & Parreno, N. (2014). Review of gender equality in disaster risk reduction and management (p. 26).
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  • 1. Culled from the organizational brochure of the Disaster Risk Reduction Network Philippines (DRRNetPhils).

  • 2. Based on PowerPoint presentation made during the Gawad Kalasag validation conference in 2016, and on an interview by Sevilla Alvarez (coauthor of this article) with federation president Gemma Gades in 2019. Quotes are from the presentation or the interview.