Opinion | Michelle Yeoh: I Know Something About Perseverance, but Not Like the Women on the Front Lines of Crisis

Over the past few weeks, many people around the world joined me in celebrating my career firsts — from winning my first Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award and Independent Spirit Award to earning my first Oscar (for actress in a leading role). While I am grateful for this unforgettable moment in my professional life, I want to redirect that global spotlight to an issue that is very personal to me and warrants the world’s attention.

My life changed eight years ago when one moment shook my outlook on the world.

It was April 25, 2015, and I was in Nepal with my partner, Jean Todt, visiting local organizations. Suddenly, I felt the earth begin to tremble violently. Outside the doors of the low-rise building I was in, a deadly earthquake ravaged the country. I’ve never felt the type of fear and panic I felt that day, when the ground beneath me shook so powerfully, I couldn’t stand on my feet. I had to crawl to try to make it to the door to escape. When we emerged, we had to stay outside for hours, unsure which buildings were strong enough or safe enough to return to.

I was fortunate to make it through that day unscathed, but not untouched. The experience was terrifying. Its effects linger with me still. Our hotel was damaged during the earthquake and was no longer safe to enter, so we made our way straight to the airport, where we spent two nights before being evacuated by plane. As we got on the road, I saw the ruins and destruction all around me. I couldn’t shake the thought of how unfair it was that I had a home to go to, unlike the thousands of families whose entire lives were suddenly reduced to rubble.

Disasters of such magnitude cause irreparable damage to the lives of those who already have so little. I witnessed this when I returned to Nepal to help with relief efforts three weeks after the earthquake and then again a year later, when I returned as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Program.

I thought again of Nepal when I watched the coverage of the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria last month. Even before the earthquake struck, the socioeconomic conditions in Syria were dire, with approximately 90 percent of the population living in poverty and millions in need of humanitarian assistance. Many are now homeless and lack the means to rebuild their lives or keep their families safe.

Crises aren’t just moments of catastrophe: They expose deep existing inequalities. Those living in poverty, especially women and girls, bear the brunt. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, lack of sanitation, health facilities and safety disproportionately affect women. In my time as a goodwill ambassador, I have seen up close how women and girls are often the last to go back to school and the last to get basic services like clean water, vaccines, identity cards and counseling. They are typically the last to get jobs and loans.

In Syria the United Nations anticipates some 40,000 women will give birth in the coming months without access to sanitary conditions. When women have to sleep out in the open — often the case when buildings have collapsed or are unsafe — or in group shelters without adequate privacy or protection, they are at increased risk of sexual violence and assault, which skyrocket in the aftermath of a disaster.

To fully recover from a disaster and be prepared for the next one, the specific needs of women and girls must be factored into the humanitarian response.

Women must also play leadership roles in the recovery process. But women are woefully underrepresented in the decision making that affects their prospects of survival in times of crisis. This gap has a dangerous effect: Studies have shown that women are hit hardest in disasters. Women and girls are often at a disadvantage when it comes to rescue efforts, and women are more likely than men to suffer from hunger.

We know women sustain their communities. Their voices, leadership and full participation are key to an inclusive, successful and sustainable recovery. This means considering women’s needs, priorities and safety when rebuilding neighborhoods and constructing schools and marketplaces. It means ensuring women have equal access to information, job opportunities and skills training, as well as loans and insurance mechanisms, which are all crucial to regain financial stability.

We know having more women in positions of power and as decision makers at community, national and institutional levels leads to more inclusive policies, laws and practices that protect and contribute to gender equality at all levels. It means striving for zero tolerance for gender-based violence at home, at work, online or anywhere else. And it also means investing in women’s education to ensure their voices are represented at the highest levels of government and society.

We live in a world plagued by recurrent pandemic, war and disaster and are struggling with climate change. It can feel insurmountable. But we also live during a time of incredible technological advancements. Information and communication technologies are our most powerful allies in battling these crises. Technology keeps essential social services running, improves crisis response, strengthens communities and boosts economic recovery.

And yet the digital world is also a place of inequality. Globally, 2.7 billion people are excluded from digital connectivity, more of them women. As a result, according to the World Bank, women face barriers in getting access to information and resources in all spheres of their lives, including how to adequately prepare for, respond to and cope with a disaster.

Reducing the digital divide is critical in changing deeply ingrained gender social norms and ensuring that women’s voices and leadership are embedded at the highest levels before, during and after a disaster. Furthermore, we must make measurable investments in women’s education that promote digital literacy and STEM fields.

This year we are halfway toward the 2030 target date to achieve what the United Nations calls Sustainable Development Goals, a blueprint for a shared global vision of a world without poverty or inequality. What I have learned through my work with U.N.D.P. is that realizing these global goals will be possible only if we achieve true gender equality, everywhere, and in all aspects of life — especially in times of crisis — and in anticipation of the next disaster.

I’m 60 years old, and I just won my first Oscar. I know something about perseverance, and I am all too aware of what society expects of women. I’m also well aware that my experience can’t compare at all with that of the women heroes I met who are on the front lines of crises. But if I can do one thing with this moment of my professional joy, it would be to point the spotlight on those who all too often go unacknowledged, the women who are rebuilding their communities, taking care of children and older people and putting food on the table. Let’s make sure they are not missing from the room when decisions are being made that affect them the most.

Michelle Yeoh is an actor and a United Nations Development Program goodwill ambassador.

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