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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Op-Ed: Do our city’s emergency plans really protect women?

Andrea Gunraj analyzes how urban crises affect women in specific ways that are not accounted for in emergency management plans


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Fires, floods, and melting permafrost in other parts of the country can make it tough to envision how homegrown climate emergencies will pan out in the City of Toronto and Greater Toronto Area.

It won’t simply be a matter of external forces descending upon us the way smoke billows into our cityscapes from afar. The urban heat island effect and the weather volatility and water and air quality risks that come with it means the Greater Toronto Area will likely be ground zero for all kinds of climate disasters in the future. Given Toronto’s temperature is expected to rise by 12.8 Celsius by the end of century, we can expect nothing less.

Of course, weather isn’t the only basis of local crises. And the global COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t the first illness-based crisis to surprise the City of Toronto with its impact. The 2003 SARS outbreak saw 44 deaths in a city where “no hospital had made infectious diseases a priority”.

Twenty years ago, I had a parent dealing with disability and life-threatening illness in a University Health Network hospital bed. My family intimately experienced the consequences of our city being caught off-guard by the SARS outbreak. The most vulnerable person in our household faced the very worst of it.

This is the common denominator on a bigger scale, too: the city dwellers who are most marginalized get hit hardest by urban crises.

Service providers and advocates working closely with women, girls, and gender-diverse people understand the deeply gendered nature of this marginalization fallout.

Women’s service providers across Canada know to brace for spikes in gender-based violence rates and deepened gendered inequalities when disaster strikes. They’ve learned it the hard way: the Great Recession of 2008, the 2013 floods in Alberta, the Ft. McMurray wildfires in 2016 — these events all resulted in spiked rates of partner abuse, sexual assault, and other gender-based violence. They translated to thousands of abuse survivors trapped in dangerous situations with their abusers under the naïve assumption that home is the safest place to hunker down in disaster and family are the safest people to cling to.

Home and family are not safe for everybody.

Global research bears it out. Only a month into the pandemic, UN Women named surging rates of violence against women all over the world a “Shadow Pandemic” and urged governments to take action. In Canada, femicide rates increased by 20% and distress calls to police and crisis lines increased. Intimate partner violence bumped up in both intensity and severity.

Those at higher risk of gender-based violence, including Indigenous women, women with lower incomes, and women with disabilities, felt the impacts even more. To add to pressures, precarious female-dominated service jobs marginalized women tend to be concentrated in — personal support work, cashiering, cleaning — are not amenable to work-from-home arrangements. They bore the brunt of greater risk of abuse as well as greater illness exposure and hardship.

In an opinion piece, Dr. Notisha Massaquoi, Tola Mbulaheni, and Muluba Habanyama express this situation aptly with respect to Black women in Canada, noting that they have three pandemics to contend with all at once.

Today, we’re dealing with the predictable reverberations of the gendered COVID-19 pandemic crisis: rising trauma and mental health concerns for women and their dependents, maxed-out women’s services and shelter beds as risk of femicides and family violence rise, while these very services are at the edge of peril in the economic downturn.

Where in the world, then, are women and gender-diverse people in our emergency and disaster preparedness plans?

They’re not in Toronto’s. Women are not named the City of Toronto’s Emergency Plan. Neither are terms like “gender,” “abuse,” and “pregnant.”

They’re not in the plans of other municipalities either. A review of 24 Canadian municipal emergency planning documents found no reference to “women” or “gender” at all. This is no minor oversight — much of the response to disaster is implemented at the municipal level. It’s the governance closest to our daily lives.

Regional plans are hardly better. Out of 28 Canadian regional plans, just two of 28 refer to “gender.” Just five mention “women” and only two refer to domestic violence.

These omissions mean that when crisis strikes, those tasked with emergency response are ill-equipped to respond to the experiences of more than half the population.

Organizations that serve women and gender-diverse people reported that, months into the pandemic when the disproportionate gendered impacts became impossible to ignore, local officials pressed for opportunities to consult with them. But the thick of crisis is the worst time to launch stakeholder consultations. Already over-stretched community-based services find themselves under inordinate pressure as they scramble to deal with effects of inadequate pre-disaster planning.

Fast forward to 2023 where Ontario municipalities have made moves to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic in the wake of rising femicides: Renfrew County, Brampton, Mississauga, Peel. They vow to marshal funding toward victim services.

It’s an important and useful tactic for municipal leaders to employ in the push for groundbreaking change. It’s also overdue.

Our slowness to manage foreseeable gendered crises has cost lives and led to untold trauma. It’s not just that we miss a gender-based analysis in urban governance. It’s as if we have a hard time believing that femicides, like every other form of violence, are one hundred per cent preventable.

It begs a deeper question. As they stand today, who exactly are our emergency plans for? Whose safety and livelihoods are they designed to protect?

We have more than enough evidence to know that disasters lead to greater abuse and hardship for women and gender-diverse people. How is it that our plans barely breathe a word for them?

We need to answer these questions truthfully. We need to use the answers to transform our approaches to emergency management and planning.

The field is still male-dominated. Gender-based expertise is limited to a pocket of mostly women within it. And consultation and collaboration with women and gender-diverse people is exceedingly rare in emergency planning processes overall.

In that sense, it’s no big surprise that our plans don’t reflect reality or that our emergency management experts are ill-equipped to represent diverse needs.

The Canadian government prioritizes incorporation of gendered realities in its financial contributions to global emergency preparedness through the Feminist International Assistance Policy. We need these very commitments for our local domestic disaster and emergency responses.

A nuanced understanding of how humans in all our diversities can be supported through crisis and its aftermath is long overdue. City responses that reflect their needs are the only way we’ll get though.

Andrea Gunraj is Vice President of Public Engagement at Canadian Women’s Foundation and a speaker and writer.

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