Getting the Voices of women from disaster-affected communities

Getting the voices of women from disaster-affected communities into the UN World Humanitarian Summit by Howard Mollet

Every year, hundreds of women’s rights activists come to New York to lobby governments in the United Nations on gender equality during the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This year, CARE International has partnered with UN Women and the World Humanitarian Summit Secretariat to convene a workshop during CSW to consult activists from countries torn apart by war and natural disasters on how to better protect and empower women and girls in times of crisis.

The workshop is entitled “Gender Equality, Women’s Empowerment and the World Humanitarian Summit” and it starts in just over three hours’ time!

Just over a year ago, Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, announced that a World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) would be convened in Turkey in May 2016. The summit aims to identify the steps required to radically transform the humanitarian system to be more effective.

Gender aware or gender blind?

Debates on what should be prioritised at the WHS are ongoing with lots of attention given to the need to strengthen the role of local institutions in mitigating and responding to disasters. Yet until now, the process has been largely blind to questions of gender. This is a shame. CARE believes that if the summit wants to empower local people affected by disaster and transform the humanitarian system to better save lives, then it is surely a no-brainer that empowering women and girls must be part of the equation.

The impacts of disasters are shaped by gender

We know that conflicts and natural disasters impact men and women, boys and girls in different and specific ways that are significantly shaped by gender. We know that time and again our humanitarian efforts suffer from a lack of staff capacity, equipment and supplies to address gender-related needs, such as reproductive health services, which results in maternal and child mortality rocketing as a consequence.

Consider the statistics: still to this day, over 50% of donor funding cannot account for how gender is factored into the design of emergency projects.

Preventing gender-based violence

Almost every evaluation of humanitarian responses over the past decade has pointed to how basic steps to prevent gender-based violence – such as factoring measures to protect women and girls from sexual harassment and abuse into the design of refugee camps or aid distribution – have happened too little, too late.

Studies also indicate that men and boys are exposed to specific forms of violence and vulnerability in crises which are often little understood or addressed, which in turn has consequences for female family and community members.

We need to change this picture

The World Humanitarian Summit needs to change this picture. From May 2016, gender-blind humanitarian assistance and protection should no longer be the norm.

To prepare for the workshop, UN Women, the World Humanitarian Summit and CARE circulated an online survey through women’s civil society networks to gather advance input for the discussion. Some of the responses included:

  • “Too often in humanitarian contexts, gender remains at the level of a little amount of rhetoric spoken in meetings. It should become compulsory that any programme addressing disasters, any hiring of humanitarian staff, and any allocation of emergency funding should draw on gender knowledge and guidance to implement targeted actions on gender equality.”
  • “If humanitarian action takes the face of a woman and is designed for women, then women will occupy a bigger and more prominent place in the response to crises.”
  • “The World Humanitarian Summit should see the needs and rights of women and girls as part of its bigger strategy and mission.”
  • “Include separate programme objectives and outcomes that address gender issues faced by women and girls in all humanitarian programs, regardless of their sector.”

Participants in the gender equality workshop

Over 30 civil society activists from every region of the world will be present at today’s workshop. Policy-makers attending include:

  • Lakshmi Puri, UN Women Deputy Executive Director
  • Mervat Shelbaya, Deputy Chief of World Humanitarian Summit Secretariat
  • Penny Abeywardena, Commissioner of International Affairs NYC
  • Udo Janz, Director of UNHCR’s NY Liaison Office
  • Daniel Seymour, OIC UN Women’s Programme Division
  • Jemilah Mahmood, Chief of the World Humanitarian Summit Secretariat.

For the majority of the civil society participants, it will be the first time their voice is heard in the WHS process. So we look forward to a lively discussion! In the words of one of our survey respondents:

“Any process to identify specific needs of women and girls must listen to women and girls themselves.”

It is a sad reflection of the state of the world that this assertion still needs to be made – and even reads as bold in the context of policy debates on the future of the humanitarian system. Today’s workshop will hopefully serve as one step towards changing this picture. We look forward to sharing its outcomes with you soon.