OPINION: No gender equality globally without women's empowerment

by Sarah Costa | Women's Refugee Commission, Inc.
Monday, 23 September 2019 13:56 GMT

Rohingya refugee children attend a class to learn Burmese language at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Displaced women and girls are especially vulnerable - they must be given equal access to resources and a seat at the table in peace talks

Four years ago, world leaders made a pledge to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by the year 2030. Goal 5 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]) contains targets to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, end female genital mutilation and child marriage, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care, and uphold women’s reproductive rights.

Tomorrow, during the high-level segment of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, leaders will meet to assess progress on the SDGs. This moment provides an opportunity to see how far we’ve come since 2015 on the commitment to achieve gender equality. The Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) is particularly interested in these discussions, and how they relate to the more than 35 million women and girls forced from their homes by conflict and crises.

WRC strongly believes that if we are to see progress, it is essential to invest in gender equality. We recently returned from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, home to almost one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, where we were encouraged to find an active commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment across the humanitarian response. Aid workers are collecting, analyzing, and using disaggregated data on gender, age, and diversity. They are supporting women’s economic empowerment, and ensuring leadership and meaningful equal representation of women and marginalized groups. And they are preventing, mitigating, and responding to gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse.

However, challenges remain. These include religious and cultural beliefs, protection concerns, and perceptions of insecurity that limit the mobility and participation of women and girls in the community and their access to services. Additionally, the changes in social norms necessary to foster Rohingya women’s leadership require longer-term approaches, driven by the community itself.

During our work in Cox’s Bazar, we saw that despite patriarchal norms in the camps, women and girls are mobilizing. But we also learned that we need to provide more safe spaces for women to self-organize and support women’s leadership and women’s organizations.

The positive steps we witnessed in Cox’s Bazar reflect a critical aspect of promoting gender equality, that is, the empowerment of women and girls, with a focus on identifying and redressing power imbalances and giving women more autonomy to manage their own lives. This includes increasing a woman’s sense of self-worth, her decision-making power, and her access to opportunities and resources. It means giving her more power and control over her own life inside and outside the home, and her ability to effect change.

Displaced women and girls are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of gender inequality because the inequality that exists before a crisis is exacerbated during displacement. Other factors, such as ethnic identity, race, disability, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity, can contribute to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. Refugee women and girls generally have less access to and less control over social and economic resources. Their educational opportunities are usually limited, while their family responsibilities are typically high compared to their male counterparts. Sexual and gender-based violence against refugee women and girls, including rape, child marriage, and female genital mutilation, is pervasive. And sexual and reproductive health services are often inadequate or lacking.

At WRC, we believe that gender equality and women’s empowerment are central to an effective, inclusive, and rights-based response in situations of crisis, conflict, and natural disasters. If refugees are to thrive, women and girls must have access to education, health care, and economic opportunities. They must be given leadership roles and granted decision-making power in the family and the community. They must have a seat at the table in peace talks.

We know that providing financial resources to promote gender equality in humanitarian response programs and support women and girls’ empowerment works. We’ve seen it. But we need to do more. Failure to do so perpetuates the high risk of violence, inhibits our ability to reach those most in need of aid, and squanders the enormous potential that women and girls can bring to achieving solutions.

If we are to achieve gender equality in the eleven years remaining to fulfill the SDGs, we must urgently scale up a more effective and sustainable humanitarian response—one that capitalizes on women’s skills and capacities, and creates opportunities and a path to self-reliance. With the right support—and long-term investment—refugee women and girls can not only survive, they can be agents of change within their communities and beyond. At a time when the number of displaced persons is at historic levels, it is imperative to get this right with and for displaced women and girls.

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WRC’s new report “We Need to Write Our Own Names”: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in the Rohingya Humanitarian Response in Cox’s Bazar documents positive practices and lessons learned, and proposes recommendations that can be applied globally.