Ways forward for the humanitarian system to better empower and protect women

Co-authored by Caroline Kende-Robb, CARE International Secretary General, and Howard Mollett, Senior Policy Advisor

Lucy Mainandji, who works with CARE in Chad, lived as a refugee in Cameroon when she was a young girl.

November 29th is the International Day of Women Human Rights Defenders, part of the 16 Days of Activism on Violence against Women and Girls. So it’s a good time to ask: how can the humanitarian sector better empower women – both within humanitarian agencies as well as local civil society activists – to address violence, and empower women and girls, in times of crisis?

What are the challenges?

Traditionally, many in the humanitarian sector saw women’s participation as not a priority – not relevant to ‘life-saving’ aid and protection. Some argued – wrongly in CARE’s view – that it was inconsistent with an impartial approach to aid. From this perspective, working on women’s agency or influence on how priorities for aid or protection are determined risks undermining the neutrality of humanitarian agencies.

CARE – and thankfully an increasing number of others in the humanitarian sector – politely, but firmly disagrees with the above line of argument.

Why? Because humanitarian action cannot hope to effectively prioritise the most urgent needs for aid or protection unless women can inform needs assessments.

The core values underpinning the Red Cross Code of Conduct and International Humanitarian Law – defending humanity and supporting the dignity of people in times of war or natural disaster – cannot be achieved if we don’t understand how crises impact on women and girls in specific ways partly shaped by gender.

Emergency responses will never be truly accountable to crisis-affected populations if women and girls voices do not inform its efforts on ‘AAP’ (Accountability to Affected Populations). Nothing has brought this more to light than the recent attention to cases of sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse by staff of aid agencies, peace-keeping operations and UN missions. Nobody can think that business as usual is acceptable.

How to move forward?

Luckily, the picture is not entirely bleak. In fact, the humanitarian sector has come a long way over recent years to document good practices and define global standards on women’s participation and gender equality in humanitarian action. The challenge is now to actually implement these, and be held accountable to them.

We also know that women and girls, including those active within civil society, are often amongst the first responders, and are organising to protect themselves and others in times of crisis. Increasingly in crises like Syria and Yemen, women activists have participated in aid delivery and protection efforts as an integral part of their work to defend and promote women’s rights.

Aid agencies like CARE have also started to partner with local women’s rights organisations in countries like Afghanistan, DR Congo, Jordan and South Sudan and explore ways to bring their expertise into our work. CARE is also working with human rights actors – including the Centre for Reproductive Rights and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – to scope ways to safely and effectively link human rights reporting mechanisms with those grassroots efforts by women activists on issues like access to sexual and reproductive services and rights.

Under the Canadian presidency of the G7, major donors endorsed a G7 Whistler Declaration on gender and humanitarian action in June this year. A follow-up event is planned in June 2019 to take stock of efforts to date and chart ways forward. CARE strongly believes that this Declaration – if it is translated into meaningful and practical follow-up actions – has the potential to be transformative. For this to happen, we call on all donors, UN agencies and civil society to come together to identify priorities that they will take forward individually and collectively.

There are also a number of other global processes which have the potential to deliver transformative change – including discussions on gender in the Grand Bargain process, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and elsewhere. We’re doing our part by supporting women from affected communities to contribute to conversations at global and national level.

So what to prioritise?

To help answer this question, CARE published a new CARE policy discussion paper on gender and women’s participation in humanitarian action and a new research report Women responders: Placing local action at the centre of humanitarian protection programming based on interviews with staff from humanitarian and women’s rights organisations around the world. We want to see conversations happening in every country – both in donor states and countries affected by crisis – to identify practical, but also transformative ways forward.

Please do read our policy discussion paper for more detailed suggestions, but here are four options we think are absolutely essential:

Firstly, holding UN humanitarian coordination and leadership efforts at the country-level accountable for a more systematic approach to gender.

Varying approaches to gender by UN Humanitarian Coordinators, UN humanitarian country teams and the UN/NGO cluster coordination processes have led to inconsistent adherence to even basic standards, such as ensuring safe design of water/sanitation facilities or meaningful consultation of women in needs assessments. Good practices exist and an aligned approach to these has been defined through a new Inter-Agency Standing Committee Gender Accountability Framework, which is due to roll-out over the coming year. So donors, UN agencies and NGOs should rally behind this.

Secondly, all humanitarian agencies should establish multi-year action plans and annual reporting to transform their organisational culture on women’s participation and accountability to women in crisis-affected communities.

Humanitarian agencies need to shift beyond the project level of gender mainstreaming to address gender, power and inclusion at an organisational level. Donors should push for this too. Discussions on indicators for gender under the Grand Bargain and the Call to Action on Protection From GBV in Emergencies could also provide opportunities to catalyse a coherent approach across donors and operational agencies to this.

Thirdly, donors should agree a ‘Common Donor Approach to Funding Gender in Humanitarian Action’.

Gender is often the first thing which donors ask agencies to cut when they negotiate emergency funding. This needs to change. What’s more, programmes to address the specific gendered impacts of crises are also chronically under-resourced – examples include the response to gender-based violence (in particular child marriage and intimate partner violence), support for consistent and full provision of the Minimum Initial Services Package for Reproductive Health (MISP) and programmes to support women’s voice in humanitarian accountability processes. On other issues – like cash programming and safety management – donors have agreed aligned approaches to what they will fund. Efforts on gender could benefit from a similar exercise – a ‘Common Donor Approach to Gender in Humanitarian Action.’

Fourth, donors, UN agencies and NGOs should establish more systematic ways to engage both women in crisis-affected communities and local women’s groups meaningfully in humanitarian decision-making and accountability processes.

In CARE’s view, too often women’s participation in humanitarian action gets reduced to ad-hoc events pegged to moments like International Women’s Day or investment in individual NGOs. Instead, we need to see systematic changes in the ways that humanitarian action is designed, implemented, monitored and held accountable. A basic level of sex- and age-related disaggregation of data (SADD) in needs assessments and accountability efforts is a start, but not adequate. Women and girls’ priorities will remain marginalised in these processes in the absence of dedicated, stand-alone efforts to support their meaningful participation and voice. Promising pilots, such as CARE’s work to establish refugee women leadership councils in Jordan, should be supported, learning documented and good practices scaled-up. Support should also be increased to local women’s groups – including both funding and involvement in decision-making and accountability efforts, such as through input to UN Humanitarian Response Plans (HRPs) and Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) strategies.

Will you work with us on this?

CARE knows that we don’t have all the answers to these challenges. Perhaps we aren’t even asking all the right questions. Genuine, structural changes in humanitarian action will not come easy or fast. But – one year from now – we want to see more systematic accountability for women’s protection and participation in emergency responses.

We are serious about changing how we operate and working with others towards that goal. Will you work with us on this?