Putting girls and women at the centre of humanitarian action – Women Deliver

Apply for the Emerging Leaders for Change Program East Africa Cohort!

Apply Today

Putting girls and women at the centre of humanitarian action

By Marcy Hersh, Women Deliver | Crisis Response Journal | May 2018 | vol:13 | issue:3

Marcy Hersh brings news of an advocacy effort by Women Deliver, which calls for more effective gender-sensitive humanitarian action for girls and women in emergencies

I will never forget the day I met Nour, a young woman from Dar’a, Syria, whose pursuit of asylum was unimaginably difficult and cruel – simply because she was female.

We met in in Chios, Greece, in 2016, where she arrived on a fragile rubber dinghy, just a few weeks pregnant with her fifth child. The camp she was brought to was not built with girls and women in mind, so even its basic food, safety, and sanitation services were rarely accessible or appropriate for her needs. Maternal health services existed, but without female translators or specialized providers, they could not help Nour when she needed them the most.  She feared delivering her child, not knowing how or if she and her baby would be able to receive the care they needed.

What I witnessed in Greece isn’t an anomaly – far from it. Unacceptably, girls and women are consistently underserved in humanitarian settings, and stories like Nour’s only multiply with every new crisis. Their experiences are constant reminders that we, as an international community, can and must do better.

That’s why my organization, Women Deliver – a leading global advocacy organization working for gender equality and the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women – recently announced that it will be bolstering its advocacy efforts to drive more concrete action for girls and women in humanitarian settings.

For over a decade, Women Deliver has used every tool in its advocacy toolkit – convenings, partnerships, communications campaigns, and more – to help elevate the voices of girls and women and put gender considerations at the center of the global development agenda. Women Deliver has always known that there were useful insights from this work for the humanitarian sector, but like many development actors, didn’t apply these learnings to humanitarian action as much as it could have.

Now, more than ever, as the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women in emergencies continue to deteriorate, development and humanitarian organizations alike are realizing that they must act. With generous support from the Government of Canada, Women Deliver has invested to build a new humanitarian advocacy team – which I am leading – to join the global push for better policies, programs, and investments for girls and women in these challenging environments.

For us, that begins with a firm call to put sexual and reproductive health and rights as a consistent priority in all emergency preparedness, response, and recovery efforts.

It is an often forgotten reality that the need for reproductive health services and supplies becomes more acute in emergency settings, because girls and women affected by armed conflict and natural disasters are at increased risk of multiple forms of gender-based violence, unintended pregnancy, and maternal morbidity and mortality, including unsafe abortion. As a result, the demand for family planning in humanitarian settings is fierce. For example, nearly three quarters of pregnant Syrian refugee women surveyed in Lebanon wished to prevent future pregnancy, and more than one half did not desire their current pregnancy. Demand for the full range of contraceptive options, including long-acting methods, is present in humanitarian settings, and evidence shows that women will use them if available and of reasonable quality.

In response, humanitarian agencies have provided protection and reproductive health services in some of the world’s most challenging settings, including South Sudan, Chad, and DRC. For example, over the past four years, humanitarian responders have provided contraception to more than 178,000 women across these three contexts. The global humanitarian community has also developed and vetted standards and guidelines for the provision of reproductive health services, the prevention and response to gender-based violence, and guidance on integrating gender equality considerations across all humanitarian operations. These programs and tools, when fully funded and implemented in all humanitarian emergencies, are lifesaving for girls and women.

Yet all too often, these guidelines sit unused by field-based practitioners and, in the chaos of an emergency response, donors overlook the needs of the girls and women most marginalized by a crisis. As emergency responders prioritize providing food, shelter, and water, they often fail to realize that if girls’ and women’s perspectives are not included in the way these services are provided, many will not be able to safely access them.

It’s time to walk the talk and put girls and women at the center of all humanitarian operations. At Women Deliver, we believe this work cannot and should not be done without the engagement of girls and women themselves, who are one of our biggest allies and untapped resources when it comes to more effective gender-sensitive humanitarian action.

Women-focused civil society organizations (CSOs) in particular are incredible agents of change that can lift up entire communities, during crises and well beyond. Across the world, they’ve served as local leaders and first responders when disasters strike, and possess the local knowledge needed to deliver aid in fast, effective, and dignified ways when it matters most.

Take this example: during Vietnam’s 2013 typhoon – which displaced over 100,000 people from their homes – no evacuations were needed from the 245 homes that engaged a local Women’s Union to develop storm-resistant shelters in advance.

This and many other inspiring examples of women’s leadership in humanitarian action have not gone unnoticed. From the World Humanitarian Summit to the Global Compact for Refugees, all global discussions of humanitarian reform have boiled down to the same conclusion: increased power, influence, and funding must be directed to local actors.

Making the leap from commitments to tangible investment and engagement with women-focused CSOs in humanitarian settings has been slow. Only 0.2% of humanitarian aid dollars currently fund local CSOs, and even less to those focused on girls and women – a missed opportunity to invest in those with the best local knowledge and access to the most marginalized.

Change begins by reframing girls and women as victims and dependents of aid to critical contributors in humanitarian action. A core component of Women Deliver’s new humanitarian advocacy work will be to drive this narrative shift by helping to strengthen and elevate the voices of women-focused CSOs to reach global platforms. We’ll be providing trainings, resources, and opportunities that would otherwise be inaccessible.

But we can’t do it alone. International humanitarian organizations must look for opportunities to engage with and invest in women’s organizations from the outset of an emergency. During the preparedness stage, they should identify local capacities in areas that can empower and protect girls and women, and bring about lasting gender-transformative change. And in program implementation, international organizations should partner with women’s organizations that have day-to-day experience operating, navigating, and delivering gender-responsive programs in insecure contexts.

We’ve seen time and time again that engaging and investing in girls and women causes a ripple effect that powers progress for all. Healthy girls and women are the cornerstone of healthy societies, especially during emergencies. When their health, rights, and wellbeing are prioritized at the outset, we promote resilient communities that can withstand the challenges ahead.

The task now before us at Women Deliver – to make gender a priority, never an afterthought, in humanitarian action – is ambitious and challenging. Stories like Nour’s fuel us to persevere, as she does, with the courage and determination it takes to beat the odds. We hope you’ll join us.

For more information about Women Deliver’s new humanitarian advocacy effort, please visit www.womendeliver.org/humanitarian. If you are interested in exploring potential opportunities for partnership and collaboration, please email me at mhersh@womendeliver.org.