It’s been a big year for women’s rights on the international stage, and gender equality is, as ever, precarious. In humanitarian contexts, the issues can be so complex that they appear overwhelming. How do we navigate this cultural, political, and personal struggle in emergency contexts, in which our mandate is to save lives?
We need to keep talking about gender. We will not fulfil this mandate until we integrate the needs of all people, no matter who they are. We must contextualise this with equally crucial questions about decolonisation and climate change. And as vast as the issues are, we can take a critically hopeful view. What steps can we take so that next International Women's Day we look at this from a new place?
Why do we need to keep talking about gender?
When disaster strikes, pre-existing inequalities make women and girls especially vulnerable.
Some contexts show this clearly. Sophie Nyokabi is a RedR UK Associate Trainer and gender equality and integration expert. She works to enhance a gendered response in humanitarian and Disaster Risk Reduction interventions in East Africa. In drought, she says, women and girls bear the brunt of disaster. Women, girls, and boys are fourteen times more likely to die in disasters than men.
Sophie recommends this video to demonstrate gender differences in the humanitarian crisis in Somalia.
Surely the priority in a crisis, however, is to focus on simply saving lives, rather than use time and resources thinking about inclusion?
Kate Denman, RedR associate trainer and gender and inclusion specialist, designed our Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion course, as well as gender courses for the MENA and Ukrainian contexts. She was previously RedR UK Programme Manager, where she contributed to the now widely used Minimum Standards for Age and Disability Inclusion in Humanitarian Action, as part of the ADCAP consortium.
Kate has a simple answer to this question. “If you don’t think about inclusion, you’ll only support the most dominant”, she says. “Those most in need have the least power and influence. Meeting basic needs of those most in need is actually the imperative - the whole purpose of humanitarian action in the first place.”
Inequality causes violence
The existential turmoil of a disaster context brings existing inequalities to the surface in a disturbing form – heightened gender-based violence.
Maria Dmytriyeva is a gender expert from Ukraine, and RedR UK Associate Trainer. She facilitates several courses, including Gender-Based Violence and Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.
“Every crisis brings out more violence against women”, explains Maria. “In this war, authorities are occupied, there are limited resources, and everyone’s nerves are on edge.” As people have lost their incomes, their homes, and their futures, she explains, there are fewer mechanisms to prevent violence. Domestic violence has been growing. Gangs in neighbouring countries traffic a growing number of women leaving Ukraine. “Everything that was bad before the invasion has got worse", she says.
The training does make a difference, however, showing people the scale of the issue. “They see how prevalent, yet how hidden it is”, says Maria. “They see how ignoring it will limit people’s chances of rebuilding their lives after the war.” The design of humanitarian programmes can actually make gender-based violence worse, not better. Gender-based violence in refugee centres makes training for Minimum Standards for Camp Management so important.
If women from affected communities are involved in camp management, they transform outcomes. When they sit on security or food distribution committees, they advocate for crucial factors that no one else has thought about. Will food distribution be early enough for women to walk home before dark? Will water points be in a well-lit, visible, public space? Can women report abuse in safe, culturally appropriate ways?
A two-pronged approach
We need a new norm to integrate concerns of women and girls (and other marginalised groups) across humanitarian programming. We need a new norm that champions local expertise and supports capacity building at the grassroots.
In large-scale disasters, the United Nations coordinates a response through the cluster system. But as Sophie notes, “gender equality is not a cluster. Rather, gender equality should cut across clusters. International humanitarian organisations need to strengthen this.
Sophie facilitates our Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction course in East Africa. This work illustrates why gender equality cannot be an afterthought, or an add-on. “Women have a lot of community memory”, she says, “and they know when systems are not working. At grassroots, whether in a feeding system, inoculation of children, or cattle dipping, women are in touch with the community’s nervous system. A bounce back integrating women’s perspectives is stronger, faster, and more sustainable.”
Although we’ve come a long way, as Kate reflects, “we’ve still not got this right. There are contexts where the shift towards gender equality is so massive that it almost appears too difficult.” Nonetheless, we must design projects which integrate needs of all affected people. More than including some element of ‘women’s issues’ into the remit of our programmes, we must change methodology and mindset, integrating listening into our training and practice.
Women as leaders
Local women need to be the leaders. In a Somali community ravaged by drought and economic challenges arising from the pandemic, businesses have been lost. But Sophie has been involved in setting up Village Saving and Loan Associations (VSLAs), training women to manage collective saving and crediting groups. “Once they have started saving, we take things a notch higher and support them into entrepreneurship. We support them with literacy and mentorship. I have seen how it has benefitted women, enabling them to take advantage of opportunities.”
Caroline Wanene is a social development consultant and RedR UK Associate Trainer. Although she doesn’t facilitate courses focused on gender, she advocates for a deliberate gender focus, no matter the topic. But Caroline doesn’t only teach others how to include women in her programmes – she lives it out, working to give a voice to women in her training. She says, “I am always asking myself – do the women on my courses get lost between the cracks?” When the participant list has a minority of women, Caroline seeks them out, to ensure they can participate fully. Her effort is worth it. “If you train a woman, you train a community”, she says. “The absence of women in development is the absence of development”.
Gender inclusivity goes hand in hand with decolonisation. Decolonisation is recognition of the injustices and hypocrisy perpetuated by high-income countries through humanitarian aid, alongside action to repair imbalances of power. The counties that provide funds for aid are also those that continue to benefit from exploiting others in low-income countries. Because much work on gender has come from high-income countries, done by white women, propagating feminism from this context is a colonial approach. Kate poses the million-dollar question. “How can white women from high-income countries contribute to work for gender equality that is not led by us? We need to support women from the contexts where disaster happens, to make the decisions and set the agenda.”
Through action from governments, UN bodies, and the world’s biggest NGOs, women’s capacities and perspectives must be integrated into humanitarian response. At the same time, it is imperative to support capacity at the grassroots, through the world's most vulnerable people, so that this can happen. This is the two-pronged approach.
Where do we fit into this?
What can we do as organisations, as individuals, and as humanitarians, to implement this?
Women and men can lead their own disaster response. When discussing gender-based violence in Ukraine, Maria strikes an encouraging note of emphasis. The strong civil society in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries has played a crucial role in humanitarian response. “Without it”, she says, “the situation would be a lot worse. These efforts should not only be acknowledged, but properly funded. International funding needs to reach the local level, which often goes without.”
Aseel Shakboua is a gender and protection expert, and RedR UK Learning and Development Coordinator. As Senior Gender-Based Violence Specialist for UNICEF in Iraq, she previously worked to prevent gender-based violence in areas recently under ISIS control. She is now revising all our materials, and developing systems to ensure we mainstream gender equality. “In our recruitment and all our activities, even in the details, we should apply this lens”, she says. We need our response to be a gendered response.
For those designing projects, this can be quite overwhelming. Training can give an orientation to resources, and an opportunity for self-reflection. Are you inclusive? Do you take time to listen to all perspectives? Is gender equality mainstreamed and integrated, through women’s capacity to speak and lead?
For individuals, these vast systemic issues are even more overwhelming. There is always a part to play, however. Like Caroline, you can ensure you listen to people who are usually overlooked. You can take steps to strengthen your own understanding and capacity to respond to injustices around you. Take all opportunities to advocate for those who are not the loudest in the room.
The GBVAOR website includes diverse resources and an online community of practice for gender-based violence specialists.
Safe referral training equips those without specialist knowledge on gender-based violence to refer a survivor to the right places.
The International Rescue Committee has a comprehensive programme engaging men and boys to prevent gender-based violence.
This guide produced by the Women's Refugee Council addresses sexual violence against men, boys, and LGBTIQ+ individuals.
The Aid Reimagined website has good questions about linking different aspects of an inclusive and decolonised response.
The New Humanitarian | Decolonising Aid: A reading and resource list
A Bond guide to localisation for international NGOs.