Water tore through our hut
“My house was by the river not far from the school. So, we were sleeping at night and water tore through our hut and it started shaking. We came out in fear. Later, the local authority came and said the ones whose huts were damaged must evacuate immediately. By that time, our yard was full of water and we packed our stuff and put it in a previously destroyed hut in front of my hut. The authorities had a canoe in which they rescued us and people from the next village.” These are the words of Obounabe Atchissou Todesséhou, a widow and mother of seven, who has been living in a temporary shelter since that day in 2010.
She is one of the 600,000 Beninese who were displaced by the floods that hit West Africa a decade ago, as David Smith reported in the Guardian. In Benin it was the worst flooding recorded in forty years; over fifty people died.
We recently met Obunabe in a temporary shelter in which she has stayed since the flood. It is a dilapidated room within an abandoned army quarters where the National Civil Protection Agency and the local authority regularly settles residents temporarily displaced by floods.
So why is she still in the camp 10 years later, we asked. “I have to clarify that I was living in my maternal village. My father’s village is Setogon. So after the flood waters had subsided and cement and roofing sheets were being distributed, people conspired against me saying I did not belong there – that Ahoho is not my home – so I didn’t get anything.”
According to the culture of the local Ahohomè people, women are considered ‘outsiders’ in their maternal homes and do not qualify to inherit property there. This, according to her, was the grounds on which the council of elders that distributed the building materials left her out.
Disasters reinforce, perpetuate and increase gender inequality
The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction recognizes that disasters reinforce, perpetuate and increase gender inequality, making bad situations worse for women. Meanwhile, the potential contributions that women can offer to the disaster risk reduction imperative around the world are often overlooked and female leadership in building community resilience to disasters is frequently disregarded. It therefore recommends national and local policy frameworks that ensure womens’ voices and participation in risk reduction efforts and emergency response.
Integrating gender perspectives into disaster risk reduction legislation, policies and programmes, also entails addressing the barriers to equitable access to tools and resources for sustainable development.
The World Bank, in a survey of 190 countries, found that women still encounter persistent barriers to their land rights – including legal barriers – in nearly 40 percent of countries.
There is evidence from previous disaster recovery circumstances to show that, just like Obounabe, women are likely to be further marginalized of their rights to housing, land and property if those rights are not defined and protected.
Outside her little room in the camp, Obounabe shows us a little kitchen garden that she keeps, “farming helps me keep my mind calm,” she says. Before the floods in 2010, she kept cattle and grew plantain and cassava on her 4-hectare farm near the river. She lost everything.
“We spend our lives buying food. We have cultivated a lot in the past but unfortunately, we continue buying food to eat. When we were in the village, we ate from our farms. If I was in the village and I get alert before a disaster comes, I would be better off.
She remains hopeful of getting a home and returning to commercial farming.