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“Many women have become more respected leaders as a result of their work on disasters,” said Doris Escobar, my guide on a recent trip to El Salvador.
As we made our way from a flood-affected village in the western department of Ahuachapán to another across the country in San Miguel, Doris told me the story of how a team of first responders made a difference when an extraordinary storm struck El Salvador in October 2011. (Read about the team’s response to the flood emergency.)
The team was founded four years ago by Oxfam and our Salvadoran partners, and it is coordinated by Escobar herself. It began as a core group of dedicated volunteers—more than half of them women—interested in becoming experts in emergency WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene promotion) and willing to be deployed anywhere in the country at a moment’s notice. More recently, the group has been training up new members from 150 communities around the country to ensure that the people who are living in vulnerable areas have the know-how to protect the health and safety of their neighbors.
Helping women take leadership has been a priority from day one.
“Self-esteem is so low in women in the communities,” said Escobar. Many, she said, “feel they can’t do anything except work in the kitchen, prepare food, care for children, and clean.”
But the women who have joined the WASH team are learning to do everything from testing water quality to installing huge tanks to tackling the mosquito infestations that often accompany floods.
In the fumigation campaign in October, she said, “it was great to see the looks of satisfaction on their faces when they realized they could use those big machines.”
And, she told me, the team members’ new-found skills are beginning to translate into much-needed income. “It’s nice to see that there are many women becoming plumbers for the community-based water system. They are earning money for this.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve had a chance to see how disasters—though they often cause profound suffering and loss—can be catalysts for positive change for women.
“It has been a lot of work,” said Escobar, “but we are teaching that women are capable of doing everything that men can. I tell many women, ‘We don’t have to follow behind a man. We can walk in front of one.’”