Gender equality must be at the core of humanitarian action says international community

At CSW60, government representatives, civil society groups and high-level UN officials highlighted the centrality of gender equality in humanitarian action and urged world leaders to make concrete commitments at the World Humanitarian Summit in May.


Building on the momentum galvanized by the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), to be held in Istanbul on 23-24 May, government representatives, NGOs, civil society activists and high-level UN officials gathered to discuss gender equality and women’s empowerment in humanitarian action.

The CSW60 World Humanitarian Summit side event. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
The CSW60 World Humanitarian Summit side event. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Taking place on the sidelines of the 60th Commission on the Status of Women, a roundtable discussion on 17 March highlighted the need to address the specific needs and rights of women and girls in emergencies and crisis settings and the important role that women play in recovery and resilience-building. It also emphasized the centrality of gender equality and women’s empowerment to the discussions that will take place at the WHS. 

“Our world is seeing the increasing effects of climate change, violent extremism and an unprecedented number of displaced persons. Women and girls are affected disproportionately by these crises,” said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in her opening remarks. “At the same time, women are essential to recovery and resilience-building.”

Stressing the specific and different needs of women and girls in conflicts, she said that they are frequently targeted and denied access to education, reproductive services, healthcare, and participation in economic and political life in conflict-affected areas.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka addresses the CSW60 World Humanitarian Summit side event. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka addresses the CSW60 World Humanitarian Summit side event. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Stephen O’Brien, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, emphasized the crucial role WHS will play in providing an opportunity for all constituencies to advocate for enhancing gender equality in humanitarian action: “WHS will be a success only if it prioritizes women and girls at its core. We look forward to leaders to make a firm commitment to women and girls, which will focus on catalyzing action for gender equality in humanitarian response.”

WHS will bring together governments, humanitarian organizations, people affected by humanitarian crises and the private sector to discuss solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges in humanitarian action. The UN Secretary-General published his report for the World Humanitarian Summit in February, calling on world leaders to renew commitments to prevent and end suffering.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment emerged as a key theme in the World Humanitarian Summit consultation process in recent months and this resulted in four proposed commitments for Istanbul, each of which was addressed by speakers at the side event.

Hibaaq Osman, Founder and CEO of Karama, a network that protects the rights of Arab women, spoke about the first commitment: Empowering women’s groups to enhance women and girls leadership and participation. She stressed that for the Sustainable Development Goals to be implemented effectively, priority should be given to local communities: “Women have to have something at stake. The goals need to be owned and driven by the communities,” said Ms. Osman. Highlighting the importance of women’s security, she said: “If women live in fear of their and their family’s security, they can’t participate effectively in processes.”

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, Chair of the International Board of Action Aid, stressed the importance of ensuring access to quality, comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare for women and adolescent girls, the second proposed commitment for WHS. “I was born and grew up in war. For some of us this summit is not just another event, it’s about our lives,” said Ms. Gumbonzvanda, adding the need for resources: “At least 15 per cent of all humanitarian funding should go to women.”

“We’re facing the largest displacement crisis since World War II, which leads to violence and exploitation of women,” said Christine Matthews, Deputy Director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ New York Liaison Office, in speaking about the third proposed commitment for WHS: implementing a coordinated global approach to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. “Through empowering women to take leaderships roles in their communities, we can strengthen the efforts to combat gender-based violence,” said Ms. Matthews. 

Speaking about establishing accountability, the fourth and last proposed commitment for the Summit, Kim Henderson, Head of Gender Justice at Oxfam International, said: “We are accountable to women and girls living in crisis situations… Gender mainstreaming is not seen as a priority of humanitarian response, especially during the first weeks. It becomes an add-on, not a primary concern.” She also stressed the importance of changing cultural and social norms as a fundamental component of accountability.

Watch an archived webcast of the event