Humanitarian agencies are failing to maximise women’s potential and by doing so, are failing to adequately understand the experiences and therefore meet the needs of at least half the affected population. The half who tend to be more adversely affected by crises and disaster, precisely because of their gender.
What’s more, by excluding women responders, a huge source of humanitarian response capacity is going untapped, one which can improve both the reach and effectiveness of programming.
In parallel with commitments on localisation, putting women front and centre will lead to more context-driven, gender-sensitive humanitarian delivery: responses which are actually responsive to specific needs.
This isn’t just about women’s rights. This is about improving humanitarian action.
What added value do women responders bring?
To document the contribution of women to humanitarian response and the challenges they face, CARE’s new report Women responders: Placing local action at the centre of humanitarian programming 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?
Women responders looks first at how women mitigate and respond to protection risks faced by themselves and others. The research shows how women’s individual conceptions of ‘protection’, and their protection priorities, are both context specific and deeply personal.
Some women saw protection as actions to save their homes from cyclones. Some understood it as helping others in need. Others linked it to dignity and caring for their appearance having lost everything else.
When crisis hits, women don’t wait for help – they try to protect themselves first. Research by Oxfam revealed that Syrian women refugees in Lebanon, for example, pretend to receive calls from husbands who have actually been killed or kidnapped to avoid harassment.
Self-protection can also mean ‘choosing’ one form of harm over another. The same research showed Syrian women viewing early marriage as a means to protect girls from gender-based violence; Syrian men viewed it as critical economic support to the family.
These differing conceptions of protection highlight the need to engage with women responders in individual contexts to better understand specific protection risks and their complex causes. Without this, protection programmes may fail to identify or appropriately respond to women and girls’ priorities.
So how do we get more contextualised humanitarian responses?
The answer: engage with women responders. For humanitarian response to be truly responsive, we need a proper understanding of the experience of all members of the community. CARE’s research identified six key ways in which collaboration with women responders can improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response:
1. Access: Women responders may have access that permits them to act both as first responders and also support hard to reach populations.
2. Understanding: They can identify the needs of different groups.
3. Reach: They can use networks to reach other women across geographical and social divides.
4. Voice: They can raise women’s voices and support women’s leadership potential.
5. Solidarity: They provide solidarity to other women and girls.
6. Gender transformative: They can guide interventions which help support women’s empowerment by addressing unequal gender relations, promoting shared power, control of resources and decision-making.
So what is limiting women’s roles in disaster response?
Among the barriers that women list are social norms and discrimination which limit their participation in decision-making and leadership. For the more marginalised, such as women’s disabled organisations or LGBTIQ groups who may be absent from mainstream humanitarian coordination spaces or women’s movements, these challenges can be magnified. For women responders, care work can also reduce their availability to leave the home.
Are humanitarian organisations allies in overcoming barriers?
CARE’s research reveals a mixed picture of the type and extent of engagement across both protection mainstreaming and specialised protection interventions. Types of collaboration range from training grassroots women’s groups to formally engaging women-led organisations for service delivery.
The research reveals the importance of commitment from senior management. Successful partnerships are often driven by the advocacy of a few individuals within agencies. Where senior staff do not prioritise women-led organisations, or where partnership criteria favour organisational structures that facilitate due diligence and grant requirements over seeking alternative voices, collaboration is weaker.
Sub-granting models can encourage humanitarian organisations to choose fewer agreements with larger civil society organisations to ‘get the money out of the door quickly’. These are likely to be established, male-led organisations rather than smaller, women-led organisations. Yet if reaching large numbers of beneficiaries in the most cost-effective way is the aim, working with women and women-led groups is exactly what we should be doing. The cost and effort of contracting smaller organisations is worth it because we will reach people more effectively.
The perfect solution?
All this is not to say that working with women-led organisations is the panacea for perfect humanitarian protection programming. There are complexities. Women-led organisations are not immune to the challenges faced by other organisations. They are not inherently effective: some may be led by elite women, who are distanced from the lives of women from different social and economic backgrounds, while others may favour conservative approaches which reinforce traditional gender roles. Women’s movements can also experience conflict and division, and can exclude minority groups such as sexual and gender minorities. But women and women-led organisations are currently far too often excluded from humanitarian responses to the detriment of those responses.
This is a longer version of a blog first published on the Thomson Reuters Foundation news website.
This blog draws from the report Women responders: Placing local action at the centre of humanitarian protection programming written by Helen Lindley-Jones with additional work by Toral Pattni.