Gender in emergencies: Where does humanitarian assistance end and development begin?

by 17th May 2016
Kedija Abra Umer, leader of a village savings group in East Hararghe, Ethiopia, an area which has been badly affected by drought Kedija Abra Umer, leader of a village savings group in East Hararghe, Ethiopia, an area which has been badly affected by drought

People have a certain image of what constitutes an emergency. To someone you ask in the street they would probably imagine panic, chaos and people desperately trying to save their families. And that is true but not always the case, as emergencies get more drawn out due to long-standing conflict, like in Syria, or are slow-burning crises such as Ethiopia’s drought brought on by the climate impacts of El Nino. In these situations, emergency is embedded in everyday life – thinking about the safest route to go to the market or children dropping out of school becomes a part of daily life. And this is when it is not so easy to differentiate humanitarian and development approaches as short-term creeps into long-term.

In Ethiopia, the effect of El Nino on the climate has meant that, from last year, rural areas in Ethiopia have experienced unpredictable rains and failed harvests – 75% of harvests have been lost due to poor rainfall. The Ethiopian government has been commended for its ongoing assistance to people in drought-affected regions but there is still a critical need to address gaps in access to food and water and loss of livelihoods. Despite this, everyday life goes on and people cope in whichever way makes sense.

Rapid gender analysis

I was in Ethiopia recently to support staff carrying out a rapid gender analysis, which looks at how the drought has affected men, women, girls and boys in different ways, their needs, capacities and coping mechanisms. It is a unique kind of tool because it aims to do what a long-term gender analysis does, but in an emergency context – i.e. looking how emergencies affect women, men, boys and girls and being able to adapt humanitarian programmes quickly and accordingly.

It was the first time that emergency staff at CARE Ethiopia carried out the rapid gender analysis and they approached it with gusto. We had lively discussions around how it went and for most it was quite an eye-opener. We talked a lot about how we collected the data and analysed it (one staff member pointed out that it did not seem very rapid at the time!) But most importantly, the rapid gender analysis showed that there are distinct ‘development type’ opportunities in our humanitarian approach in a slow onset emergency – opportunities that can ultimately challenge gender preconceptions.

Development opportunities

A clear example of this – because of the drought, more men and boys are migrating in certain regions to finds jobs and therefore more women are finding themselves as heads of households while their husbands are away. These women find themselves dealing with extra responsibilities on top of their regular household tasks, possible protection risks and lack of access to community resources. So while CARE Ethiopia continues with existing development activities like supporting VSLAs (Village Savings and Loan Associations) and Social Action and Analysis (which are types of community support networks), it is also important to address the specific challenges that female-headed households are facing because of the drought. In fact there can be opportunities, due to changing social norms brought on by the drought crisis, for women to play a more active role. In other words, the humanitarian task of addressing the impact of the drought needs to be embedded in more ‘development type’ work.

Addressing risks through long-term interventions

The same consideration also applies to protection risks that are increasing due to the drought, with women and girls walking longer distances to fetch water, and therefore are more vulnerable to attacks, along with specific risks for female-headed households – for example, the practice in Afar (in north-eastern Ethiopia) where it is considered culturally acceptable for men to come into women’s homes when their husbands are away and to engage in consensual or non-consensual sexual intercourse with the woman. Such practices are increasing due to the drought and need to be mitigated through engaging communities in dialogue. This is not easy and can only be tackled through long-term interventions.

Blurred lines in protracted crises

The blurred lines also apply to protracted crises such as the Syria crisis where humanitarian actors are moving more towards resilience and livelihoods activities in the sad likelihood that the crisis will continue for years to come, and people’s priorities are moving towards sustainable income rather than distributions (although distributions still have their important and life-saving place).

I am the first person to shun the jargon of the humanitarian sector but what is coined as ‘transformative change’ to me just means having a long-sighted view of humanitarian activities – and when working on gender in emergencies, this simply cannot be avoided. Amidst all the tragedy and disruptions in life that people face in these situations, there can also be opportunities further down the line for men and women to accept more active and participatory roles for women in households and communities, to ensure self-protection and reduce the likelihood of gender-based violence.

Toral Pattni

Toral is currently on sabbatical until the end of 2019.

My job is to make sure that CARE’s humanitarian work addresses the specific needs and capacities of women, men, boys and girls. I support CARE’s country offices on projects in humanitarian contexts that improve specific protection measures for women and girls, promote gender equality and prevent/respond to gender-based violence. This involves designing projects, training staff, carrying out assessments, sourcing funds and identifying issues that need to change through advocacy and lobbying. I also work to improve knowledge and understanding around gender and protection in humanitarian work, through policy briefs, guidance notes and other tools, and representing CARE in external meetings on GBV and protection.

I joined CARE in February 2016 and have worked on the Ethiopia drought response, Syria refugee response and the Mosul crisis in Iraq. I previously worked with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in DR Congo, the International Rescue Committee in South Sudan and as a consultant for the UK Foreign Office Stabilisation Unit in an EU military training camp in Mali.

One good thing I’ve read

The Women in War report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a comprehensive look at how International Humanitarian Law protects women and the different ways that women are affected by war.


Twitter: @Toral_286