By Marcy Hersh | IPS | 25 March 2019
- As a long-time advocate, I’ve been invited to speak at dozens of global conferences about the needs of girls and women in humanitarian emergencies.
And while I’ve had the opportunity to understand this issue in good depth throughout my career, there’s still one glaring problem: I’m not, and have never been, a woman affected by a humanitarian emergency.
As a native New Yorker, I’ve never known what it’s like to get my period in a war zone, where menstrual hygiene products are in short supply. As a new mother, I don’t know what it’s like to give birth in a refugee camp, where maternal health services are rarely available.
And as a women’s rights activist, I don’t personally know what it it’s like to advocate in places where even uttering words like “gender equality” can be a life sentence.
But I speak English, have an American passport, and know all the humanitarian acronyms by heart – so it’s much easier to invite someone like me to into humanitarian decision-making circles in New York and Geneva than to wrestle with visas and language barriers and engage the women bravely advocating in Syria, Lebanon, and beyond.
If we really want to better understand and address the needs of girls and women in these complex environments, it shouldn’t be this way.
That’s why I was pleased to see so many more representatives from women-focused civil society organizations (CSOs) take the stage at events surrounding the UN Commission on the Status of Women this month.
Women like Olfat Mahmoud, a Palestinian nurse and refugee who stands at the podium at an event called “Does Humanitarian Aid Need a Feminist Facelift?” – hosted by Women Deliver – where she gave an opening speech. And Diana Abou Abbas, a Lebanese LGBTQIA+ activist who confidently claimed a seat at the panel to share her own experiences.
They’re not who you’d expect to hold the mics at CSW, but they are who we need to hear from most.
“I’m really blessed to be here to speak with people like you, and to remind you that we exist,” said Olfat, who leads the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization (PWHO) in her speech to international dignitaries, donors, and decision-makers in a tightly-packed room.
In truth, I can’t help but feel that we are the lucky ones to hear from people like her. Women-focused CSOs like Olfat’s are leading activities that many international organizations deem too difficult at times of conflict and disaster, like expanding access to sexual and reproductive services for refugee girls and women.
Too often, these services – like access to contraception, maternal care, and emergency obstetrics – are rarely provided in first-line humanitarian responses, if at all. Grassroots women leaders prove that providing these services is feasible and life-saving in even the most complex environments.
“I was a nurse…and always called by other NGOs to raise women’s awareness on her children’s health or family’s health…but nothing about her [own health] as a woman. We started [PWHO] to fill the gap,” Olfat describes.
At the meeting, Olfat shares PWHO’s experience working with religious leaders to ensure access women’s health programs in refugee camps where they work. Soon after, Diana describes her work with Marsa Sexual Health Center – the Beirut-based health clinic that provides safe and non-discriminatory sexual health services to the hardest-to-reach populations in Lebanon, including LGBTQIA+ people, adolescents, refugees, and others.
Both organizations have documented research and best practices to show what works in these difficult contexts – lessons that would be invaluable to international organizations that have reached a standstill on these issues.
There is growing global recognition that hearing more from experts at women-focused CSOs like PWHO and Marsa Sexual Health Center is critically needed to make humanitarian responses more effective. For example, the Call to Action on Protection from Gender Based Violence (GBV) in Emergencies – a groundbreaking partnership which includes commitments from over eighty countries and NGOs to better address GBV – is working hard to enhance local leadership to help fuel more progress on this issue.
Partners are increasing looking to women-focused CSOs to develop roadmaps to help implement the Call to Action, including in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where this work has already begun.
“Success requires investing in local organizations…and making this investment sustainable,” Diana describes at CSW. Globally, only 3% of humanitarian aid went to local and national organizations in 2017 – and much less to those focused on girls and women.
A key takeaway from CSW was the need to scale up flexible and long-term investment in women-focused CSOs, who know the context, entry points, and opportunities to deliver humanitarian assistance most effectively.
Put simply: building a more feminist humanitarian system requires handing over the mic and power to women-focused CSOs in conference rooms, press rooms, and boardrooms. It suggests letting go of some of our own power as international advocates to let women lead and set the agenda – and trust that our collective action for girls and women in humanitarian emergencies will be stronger because of it. It means relinquishing our speaking roles at international convenings so that the MVPs on the ground have a seat at the table.
After all, as Olfat so rightly put it: “Women are the backbones of our communities. They are the future. If we want strong communities, we need strong women.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.