Women affected by disasters often face the greatest risks. They need to be part of the solution

by Suzy Madigan | CARE International
Thursday, 29 November 2018 08:30 GMT

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

When humanitarians ignore local women, they fail to understand the experiences and needs of half the population

Suzy Madigan is senior humanitarian advisor at CARE International.

When disaster strikes, women are often the hardest hit. But they are not passive victims waiting for assistance.

From Kinshasa to Cox’s Bazar, women humanitarian responders - volunteers, activists, women-led groups and networks – are risking their lives to help and speak up for others.

Yet, according to research published this week by CARE International, women responders are overlooked by the humanitarian system, a fact which is both discriminatory and short-sighted.

When humanitarians ignore local women, they fail to understand the experiences and needs of half the population – the half who tend to be most adversely affected by disasters precisely because of their gender, and the inequalities that pre-date crises.

What’s more, excluding women responders leaves a huge resource untapped.

If agencies’ commitments on localisation are meaningful, the way to guarantee more contextualised, gender-sensitive humanitarian action is to put women front and centre of response. On Women Human Rights Defenders Day, let’s see commitments become reality.

What added value do women responders bring?

CARE’s new research explores this question, but the need to even pose it is telling. Are we really asking, ‘What added value do women bring to humanitarian response?’

Why do their skills, experience and perspective demand additional evidencing whereas those of men do not?  

But the challenges faced by women working in emergencies, and the limited collaboration with them by humanitarian agencies makes it necessary. Their stories need telling in order to secure greater support, funding and security. 

What does the research tell us about ‘protection’?

Asked how they reduce and respond to risks, women have widely varying conceptions of ‘protection’. Some see it as securing their homes from cyclones. Many think of protection from sexual violence. Others link it to dignity and caring for their appearance even when displaced.

As any woman knows, we have an armoury of self-protection tools adapted for particular contexts. Syrian women refugees in Lebanon, for example, try and avoid violence and harassment by pretending to receive phone calls from husbands who have actually been killed or kidnapped.   

Every context presents unique dynamics, risks and opportunities. If humanitarian programmes are not informed by local women, issues can be missed and women and girls’ priorities left unmet. 

Engaging with women responders can help. How?

  1. Access: Women are often first responders and can support hard to reach populations.
  2. Understanding: They can identify the needs of different groups.
  3. Reach: They can reach women across geographical and social divides.
  4. Voice: They can advocate, and support women’s leadership.
  5. Solidarity: They provide solidarity to other women and girls.
  6. Gender transformative: They can guide interventions which help support women’s empowerment.

What is limiting women within disaster response?

Social norms and discrimination suppress women responders. Care work can also keep women in the home. For the more marginalised, such as women’s disabled organisations or LGBTIQ groups, these challenges can be magnified.

Humanitarian organisations should help and do collaborate with women-led organisations, but to varying degrees. Successful partnerships are often driven by a few individuals within agencies rather than systematically. Where senior staff do not prioritise women-led organisations, collaboration is weaker.

Sub-granting models don’t help. Often, partnerships with established, male-led organisations that can tick ‘due diligence’ boxes are chosen over smaller women’s organisations that need support to build up administrative systems.

This might ‘get the money out the door quickly’, but if the aim is to reach large numbers of beneficiaries in the most cost-effective way, working with women is exactly what we should be doing. The cost and effort of contracting smaller organisations, and engaging different voices, is worth it because responses will be more effective.

The perfect solution?

Working with women-led organisations is not a panacea for perfect humanitarian programming. They are not immune to the challenges faced by other organisations. They are not inherently effective: some may be led by elite women, distanced from the lives of women from different backgrounds. Others may favour conservative approaches which reinforce traditional gender roles. There can also be division within women’s movements; minority groups are often sidelined.

But women and women-led organisations are currently too often excluded to the detriment of humanitarian responses.

This isn’t just about women’s rights. This is about improving humanitarian action overall.