A call to action on gender and humanitarian reform: What happened at the high-level review at the UN General Assembly of the Call to Action?

by 23rd Sep 2014
Women queuing at a CARE seed distribution event in Jonglei, one of the areas in South Sudan most affected by the conflict Women queuing at a CARE seed distribution event in Jonglei, one of the areas in South Sudan most affected by the conflict © Josh Estey/CARE

Yesterday (22 September 2014) at the UN General Assembly in New York, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, convened a ministerial meeting to review progress on the Call to Action on Violence Against Women and Girls in Emergencies. What were the highlights and key points? And what needs to happen to get the Call to Action out of the ‘gender silo’ and into the heart of wider humanitarian reforms ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016?

Three main themes emerged at yesterday’s packed event, which drew a good number of foreign ministers, ambassadors and senior officials:

  • First, the sheer enormity of the problem was stressed by senior leaders of humanitarian agencies. Speakers from UNICEF and UNFPA spoke in terms of tens of thousands of women experiencing sexual violence in some of the major crises of the day.
  • Second, a repeat refrain in speeches was the need for a kind of cultural revolution to overcome the belief that sexual exploitation and abuse are ‘the norm’ in any given society and an inevitable outcome of war or natural disaster.
  • Third, inspiring presentations were made by both governments and operational agencies describing how they are now starting to factor gender more deliberately into their wider humanitarian assistance and protection efforts. The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross listed a number of specific steps his agency was taking to ensure GBV expertise was front and centre of their response efforts. Foreign Ministers from Cameroon and Papua New Guinea made powerful speeches outlining their commitment to take forward action on GBV. Endorsement of this process by southern states is critically important to challenge the notion that caring about violence against women is a Western preoccupation only, or a guise for neo-colonial meddling.

Kerry announced that the US would pilot a new ‘Real Time Accountability Partnership’ in two countries to track progress in real time on keeping communities safer when disasters or conflict strike. In addition, linked to the US government’s ‘Safe from the Start’ bilateral package of policy and funding to support implementation of the Call to Action, an additional 12 million dollars will be allocated for innovation and training in aid agencies to dispatch experts in gender-based violence at the onset of crises (bringing the total US committed funding for Safe from the Start to more than $22 million). If, moving forward, the process can mobilise other donors and aid agencies to translate the global commitments in the Call to Action communique into what they actually do, then that will be a huge success.

Ways forward? From the Call to Action to the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016

So – great that we have a Call to Action. Great that Kerry, Greening and other senior politicians restated their commitment to what Kerry called “a global coalition that rejects gender-based violence as a by-product of war, conflict, or natural disaster.” But what next?

Yesterday’s event was an important moment to demonstrate sustained political leadership and support for the process, but a range of questions remain unresolved over ways forward on the Call to Action. How will different stakeholders – governments, UN agencies, NGOs – be held accountable for the commitments made? How will the global commitments in the communique be translated into the policies, funding and operations of different agencies involved? How will donors, UN and NGOs bring GBV into the key moments when they come together to assess humanitarian needs, decide levels of funding for different programmes, and monitor and evaluate the emergency response?

A key moment towards this end will be a workshop which is due to be convened later this year, with support from the US government and UN agencies, to work through these technical, but critically important questions.

To coincide with yesterday’s event, CARE published a new policy paper outlining detailed recommendations on how to translate the political commitments into practical steps at all levels of the humanitarian system. Key steps for the Call to Action must include:

  • First, we need to bring gender into global humanitarian reform processes, especially the deliberations towards the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR in 2015) and the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS in 2016). Unless this happens, the Call to Action risks staying siloed amongst the usual suspects of donors and NGOs already interested in gender. We need to get gender into the DNA of wider global efforts to respond in crises. The 12 commitments in the Call to Action communique have a huge relevance to broader efforts to reform the emergency system, such as the WHS debates on aid effectiveness, innovation, vulnerability and national capacity-building. So let’s bring gender into those discussions.  
  • Second, to promote accountability for gender in humanitarian programmes, we need to agree a systematic and comprehensive approach to Gender Markers holding aid agencies to account by tracking gender in the funding they receive. Our paper outlines an innovative pilot by CARE to do precisely this in Syria and Mali and efforts by others which can inform this push.   
  • Third, we need to plug the gaps in frontline programmes to address sexual and reproductive health in crises. Current efforts by NGOs to identify and overcome these gaps should be welcomed and supported by donors and states in crisis-affected countries.  
  • Fourth, we need to bring local women’s groups into humanitarian policy and practice. Efforts to open up UN humanitarian leadership, coordination, funding and programming to local humanitarian NGOs need to involve deliberate steps to engage women’s networks. Partnerships between humanitarian NGOs and women’s groups should be fostered towards this end. Nobody understands the local realities facing women and girls better than these groups, but too often they get neglected when disaster strikes.

Read CARE International’s paper A call to action on gender and humanitarian reform for more ideas on how to take this agenda forward. The humanitarian sector has far to go on gender, and the time to start is now.

Howard Mollett

I joined CARE in 2005, since then I’ve been lucky enough to work with our local teams and civil society partners in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Sudan, DRC, Kosovo and most recently on the Syria regional response team. My current responsibilities include co-chairing our global network of policy specialists on gender in emergencies, with a colleague in Pakistan, and leading CARE’s advocacy in the UK on the Syrian conflict.

Over the years, I have also worked on innovative research and advocacy with country teams on conflict analysis, civil-military relations and humanitarian access. What has kept me with CARE is the organisation’s support to grassroots activists and its commitment to addressing gender in a serious way.

Prior to joining CARE, previous roles included research on human security and development at the Centre for Defence Studies; the facilitation of a network monitoring human rights implications of the ‘Global War on Terror’; support to European coordination of the Make Poverty History campaign; global coalition-building with the Our World Is Not For Sale coalition; research on trade policy; and support to a network of environmental and human rights CSOs in the Balkans.

One good thing I’ve read

Drown by Junot Diaz - short stories that offer a brilliant fictional lens on gender, class and migrant experiences in the USA.

Email: Mollett@careinternational.org

Twitter @HowardMollett