Strengthening women’s participation in humanitarian GBV responses: Here’s what women leaders say they want

by 18th Jun 2019
The GBV AoR Localisation Task Team workshop at the Commission on the Status of Women The GBV AoR Localisation Task Team workshop at the Commission on the Status of Women

We should always identify those who are local to speak for themselves. I always say we have our own mouths. Why don’t we talk, why don’t you give us that room? Ask me what my problem is, and I will tell you...

This provocative quote by Angelina Nyajima Simon Jial captured the mood of the day at the GBV AoR Localisation Task Team workshop at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York this March. Like many of the women leaders in the room, Angelina (founder of gender-based violence organisation Hope Restoration of South Sudan) was supported by CARE to attend the workshop to discuss barriers and opportunities for women working in GBV humanitarian response.

Angelina’s statement reflected the opinions of many women in the room, who seized the moment to tell the international actors in the room not to speak for local actors, as well as exactly how they could better honour their commitments to local women’s organisations.

What is the Localisation Task Team, what are we doing, and who are we doing it for?

Sitting under the Gender Based Violence Area of Responsibility (GBV AoR, coordinated by UNFPA), the Localisation Task Team is a group of national and international NGOs co-chaired by CARE and Action Aid. The purpose of the team is to strengthen women’s participation in humanitarian GBV response with a specific focus on coordination mechanisms and entry-points in the humanitarian world.

For example, the Call to Action on Protection from GBV in Emergencies is in the 6th year of its road map, and aims to drive systemic change within the humanitarian sector to ensure that GBV response and mitigation is incorporated into humanitarian efforts from the first stage of a crisis. We already know that women are among the first to respond in a crisis, utilising community connections and contextual knowledge that INGOs can’t. So it would make sense that the Call to Action, as a global-level process aiming to improve response coordination for GBV, would be one of the first strategic entry-points for women leaders working on GBV…

Yet out of the 40 or so women in the room that day working on GBV in crises, only a handful had heard of the Call to Action or understood how it could meaningfully support their work on the ground.

Closing the gap between words and action

This gap between high-level commitments and the situation for women on the ground has been widely noted, as pledges towards accelerating the localisation agenda continue to multiply yet much humanitarian response remains business as usual. This is where initiatives like the Task Team have real potential, by:

  • mapping the GBV response work of women leaders across priority contexts (Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, South Sudan, Iraq, and the Philippines)
  • highlighting best practice
  • holding donors accountable to their commitments, and
  • promoting a cohesive approach to the funding and resource opportunities that already exist for women responders.

The Task Team, co-led by ActionAid and CARE, is supporting a number of regional activities (in New York, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia this year) to identify barriers to and opportunities for women responding to conflicts and natural disasters in their own communities to be given access to funding and are enabled to make decisions usually made by the international community, including governments (their own and larger aid-donors) and humanitarian agencies.

Our work is about ensuring the women who are doing life-saving work on the ground, but are all too often overlooked, are at the centre of humanitarian policies and programmes.

What can we learn from the first workshop?

What struck me was the inexhaustible energy of the women in New York – despite their efforts often being stymied by others who recognise their leadership with words, but fail to translate acknowledgements into action.

Each and every woman in the room, from contexts including South Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Nigeria, and the Pacific Islands, proved the necessity of having women not only participate in but lead discussions with donors and decision-makers about how best to support the work they are doing to support other women, girls, and at-risk communities.

Throughout the day, no-one shied away from calling out their UN and INGO counterparts whenever it was deemed necessary – from the use of jargon and exclusionary language, to the lack of appropriate capacity-building initiatives tailored to the context-specific needs of women themselves.

The women in the room were not there to be told what we could do for them, but to tell us what they need from us as humanitarian agencies.

So what would a shift in power for women humanitarian actors look like?

For CARE as a larger NGO, many recommendations resonated with our ethos. Here are some to keep in mind as we continue working in partnership with women-led organisations, women and girl humanitarians, and other civil society actors:

  • When working with donors, we must also advocate for multiple sources of pooled funding in-country, not just at the national level. The OCHA pooled fund, as it stands, isn’t working for local women’s organisations. Work must be done on reforming this, as well as developing pooled funds for women’s organisations that bridge the humanitarian-development nexus to allow for more effective capacity-building.
  • Hold big meetings and donor conferences in strategic regional locations (to the extent possible) to make them accessible to local actors, especially women and girls and their organisations from poorer, rural, and less accessible areas. Additionally, we should aim to use local language or have translators if this is not possible.
  • Develop capacity-building strategies from meaningful consultation with local actors in order to build upon their strengths and priorities, and ensure that plans for capacity building are targeted, relevant, and context-specific. Good practices could include individual organisation assessments and capacity-building plans, as is implemented in the Whole of Syria Turkey Hub.
  • Pay women for their time, cover their expenses, and put women leaders and their organisations at the centre of preventing, responding to, and eliminating GBV.

A personal reflection: inspiration and a sense of purpose

A fledgling in the sector, this was the first major event I helped organise since starting at CARE International UK and I watched the day unfold with a dry mouth and a pounding heart, as I had spent three months working on the workshop and liaising with the women in the room to ensure their participation. I spent the first half of the day jumbling my words as I finally got to meet them, worrying that I hadn’t ordered enough sandwiches for lunch or that the IT system would decide to stop working just before an important presentation. Both of these predictions unfortunately came true, but despite my logistical miscalculations, the day was a resounding success, as the passion and appetite for our work became increasingly clear. We left the room with a renewed sense of purpose and a determination to see a real increase in and strengthening of women’s participation in humanitarian GBV responses.

Rosie Agnew

My role is Policy and Advocacy Assistant in Gender in Emergencies. I focus on empowerment-led projects for women responders in crises. I coordinate the GBV AoR Localisation Task Team with ActionAid.