New UK funding to help protect women and girls in emergencies

Wednesday, 13 November 2013 17:30 GMT

Women carry their children during a medical mission for flood victims, by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), in Tondo, Manila after floods and landslides killed 27. August 30, 2013.REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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Britain and other donors give funds to help provide better protection for women and girls caught in emergencies, such as the conflict in Syria

(Updates with fresh quotes)

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The UK Department for International Development (DFID) announced on Wednesday that it would give £21.6 million in new funding to help protect girls and women in emergencies, most of it to be spent in six countries.

It said £9 million would go to support DFID programmes with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia, and most of the rest would be divided between projects in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

“The commitments made today mean that in future when crisis hits, the safety of girls and women will be a major priority for all humanitarian agencies alongside delivering other essentials like food, water and shelter”, International Development Secretary Justine Greening told a high level meeting in London.

 Humanitarian emergencies, from natural disasters to conflicts, leave women and girls particularly vulnerable to violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse, forced marriage and trafficking, and sexual violence can be used as a weapon of war.

Participants at the event – among them the High Commissioner for the U.N. refugee agency Antonio Guterres, David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, and William Swing, the International Organisation of Migration’s director general – acknowledged that the international community had so far failed to protect women and girls in emergencies and urged all players to promote a shift in culture and fast, effective programmes to ensure their protection.  

During the current civil war in Syria, violence against women and girls has increased as some men vent their frustration and abuse power within households. In many areas women fear kidnapping, robbery and physical and verbal harassment.

In Haiti sexual exploitation and abuse are widespread 18 months after the earthquake, in part because goods and services needed to survive are not available for many women and girls.

“When a country is hit by disaster, as we have seen in the Philippines this week, girls and women are particularly vulnerable,” Greening said. “The international community learns more with every response, but I want to make sure we are prioritising the needs of girls and women. They may seem simple but things like lockable toilets, safe access to firewood, or adequate lighting can make a huge difference.”

Although no specific additional funding was allocated for the Philippines’ disaster, Greening said that all the donors at the event will be looking at how to coordinate the humanitarian response in the Philippines to reduce the risk of violence against women. 

Funding commitments totalling £19.7 million were made at the meeting by the United States, Switzerland, Japan and Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO).

“Preventing violence against women and ensuring help for survivors of violence must be a central part of emergency responses. This is a great first step but we must also remember, violence against women does not begin or end in humanitarian crises. We look forward to working with the government and the humanitarian community to address the root causes of violence and strengthen women's rights", said Oxfam Chief Executive Mark Goldring,


“With all of our contributions today (we insisted) that all the agencies look at and assess the risk of violence against women and girls on the ground in the Philippines,” Greening said.

An estimated 49,000 women aged 15 to 49 are at risk of sexual and gender based-violence, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) .

Nearly 200,000 pregnant women need specialised services for pre- or postnatal support, child health, health promotion, family planning and psychosocial services, OCHA said in a report.

“The Philippines (disaster) is a starting point to make things differently, to make sure women and girls who survived (typhoon Haiyan) won’t get humiliated, beaten and abused while they try to survive,” said Hillevi Engstrom, the Swedish minister of international development and cooperation.

Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, urged all players in humanitarian relief efforts to be promoters of a “cultural shift” in how aid is delivered.

“When I go to the field I see this (women and girls) is not their top priority (of aid workers), deep down in their hearts. We need to make aid workers understand that this is a key part of their work.”

Guterres’ words were echoed by the World Health Organisation’s Richard Brennan, who said that when a disaster strikes or a conflict breaks out, “Women often don’t come forward.”

“We need to look into this, what are the constraints on women accessing the services when they are available?”

A report by aid agency CARE on Wednesday said that too little international aid was channelled towards projects that target gender violence and sexual exploitation of women in humanitarian crises, and that existing systems did not adequately track how effectively programmes address female needs.

“We've got much better systems now to understand how much of our investment is going to women and girls-focused initiatives,” Greening said. “We are now making a requirement when we provide humanitarian support to UN agencies that they absolutely have processes in place to assess risk of violence against women and girls and then to be able to take action.” 

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