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It’s Time to Close the Humanitarian Gender Gap

It’s Time to Close the Humanitarian Gender Gap

     On this day, a month ago we celebrated World Humanitarian Day. It’s seen as a time to pay tribute to those who risk their lives in humanitarian crises and to galvanise support for communities affected by disaster and conflict.

     This has never been more important – 18 million people face starvation in the East African food crisis, which the United Nations has declared as one of the worst humanitarian crises in human history. In Syria, after six years of unabated conflict, more than half the population has been forced to flee their homes. And this week heavy monsoon rains and flooding have taken an overwhelming toll on communities across Bangladesh, India and Nepal, destroying homes and livelihoods, and leaving millions in urgent need of food, water, shelter and protection.

     The world has never witnessed humanitarian crises of this frequency and scale. For women fighting the twin challenges of poverty and patriarchy against a backdrop of climate change, recurrent disasters and protracted crises, it’s never been this tough.

     Last year, world leaders gathered in Istanbul at the World Humanitarian Summit. They set out a five-point plan, The Agenda for Humanity, which was designed to mobilise collective action on these challenges. Governments identified empowering and protecting women and girls in emergencies as one of the major transformations urgently needed, recognising not only the disproportionate impact of crises on women and girls, but also the systemic exclusion of women from humanitarian decision-making. It was a commitment that received support from United Nations Member States, with pledges to increase resources for women’s organisations, ensure women’s participation and leadership, and to align humanitarian funding with principles of gender equality.

     The year before, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction recognised that “women and their participation are critical to effectively managing disaster risk and designing, resourcing and implementing gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction policies, plans and programmes; and adequate capacity building measures need to be taken to empower women for preparedness as well as build their capacity for alternate livelihood means in post-disaster situations.”

     Despite these important commitments, we have yet to see the political will needed to drive such a radical transformation that will shift power and resources to those experiencing the worst impacts of humanitarian crises. This requires an approach that dares to challenge the status quo; an approach that confronts a system built on principles of neutrality and prohibition of ‘engaging in controversies of a political or ideological nature’. The pursuit of gender equality, or feminism, as it’s otherwise known, is ideological in nature. One must ask if it is truly neutral to accept a situation that privileges one group over another and continues to exclude half the population?

     Humanitarian actors must also go beyond equating equal numbers of men and women in consultations and relief distributions, with something that can single-handedly deliver substantive gender equality. Widespread gender discrimination in access to power and resources in countries facing the greatest risk of disaster or conflict means that women don’t start at the same point as men in the race, and without exception, disasters and conflict aggravate these pre-existing gender inequalities. For humanitarian approaches to be truly transformative they must be grounded in an equitable approach, one that recognises women, and particularly those living in poverty, require differential support to reach the starting line, let alone make it to the finish.

     Radical transformation also demands making the invisible, visible. When patriarchy gave rise to the world’s economy, it gave an economic value to men’s work and ignored the contribution of half the world’s population. This is mirrored in a humanitarian system that fails to recognise the incredible contribution made by women from disaster-affected communities – they are among the first responders, they play a vital role in evacuating the injured, the elderly and children, -saving countless lives, and they bear the primary responsibility for the food security of families and communities.

     These are the real heroes we should be celebrating on World Humanitarian Day. Yet all too often women’s leadership goes unrecognised, undervalued and unpaid. If we are to overcome the gendered impacts of disasters and conflicts, and realise the transformation that was envisaged in Istanbul, supporting women’s leadership in preparing for and responding to emergencies is a non-negotiable.

     For ActionAid, women’s leadership has been a core pillar of the organisation’s emergency response for more than a decade. This work was pioneered in Bangladesh through a targeted women-led emergency response program in communities affected by recurrent floods and cyclones. The program recognised women’s inherent capabilities in times of crises and matched these with additional skills, opportunities and resources for women to lead their communities in times of crisis. This work was recognised for its innovation in 2007 through the UN Sasakawa Award and continues to be at the heart of ActionAid’s humanitarian work around the world as we respond to disasters and conflicts on an unprecedented scale.

     Women’s leadership was at the forefront of ActionAid’s response to the deadly Ebola virus in Liberia, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, recent earthquakes in Nepal, and the Category 5 cyclones that have ripped through Vanuatu and Fiji in recent years.

     In Somaliland, where sexual violence is on the rise as women and children flee their homes in search of food and water amid extreme drought, and where families are forcing girls into early marriage as their only means of survival, ActionAid is working with women to lead in defining their own protection needs and responses. This is defying a narrative that sees women as helpless victims requiring international assistance and strengthening women’s own collective capacities to withstand crisis and protect their rights.

     This World Humanitarian Day, let’s celebrate the real heroes in humanitarian crises and make visible the inspiring women on the frontlines of emergency response.

     As Mary Jack, a powerful community leader from Vanuatu often reminds me, ‘we don’t want to be consulted, we want a seat at the table’. It’s a powerful call to governments that it’s time to close the gender gap in humanitarian response. Women from disaster-affected communities continue to be excluded from decision-making, despite having an enormous wealth of expertise to offer and bearing the heaviest burden of care in times of crisis.

     By recognising and resourcing women’s leadership in emergencies, we can create the transformation so urgently needed to tackle the unprecedented scale of humanitarian crises and climate change impacts. This will ensure that communities are resilient to increasing shocks and more equitable and sustainable over the long term. It’s time to close the humanitarian gender gap, for women – and for the whole of their communities.




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Michelle Higelin

Michelle Higelin has been a leader in the women’s rights movement in Australia and internationally for more than two decades and has over 15 years of senior management experience in NGOs focused on human rights and development. Michelle is a former CEO of YWCA Australia and was previously based in Geneva, Switzerland, where she was Deputy Executive Director of the World YWCA, one of the world’s largest women’s rights organisations.

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