Getting humanitarian action right for women and girls

Statement by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka


In 2016, natural disasters and war zones have created indelible images of barbed wire barriers, endless straggling dusty lines of tired people on the move, overladen boats making hazardous sea passages, buildings destroyed by bombs, cyclones, earthquakes and fires, exhausted responders with hard hats and clipboards. These images reflect desperate flight from violence and destruction, the courage of those who stay, the courage of those who go. They make real for us the extraordinary circumstances of millions on the move. 

However, there are two important aspects of the experience of people in crisis that are not in sight, and are insufficiently in mind in humanitarian action: the extensive sexual violence and domestic violence experienced by women and girls; and conversely, the strong drive of women and girls to lead humanitarian response and to acquire the skills and resources that enable them to rebuild their lives. Governments and humanitarian agencies focus attention on providing food, water, basic medical care and shelter. Protection and a means of livelihood are relegated to non-essentials. Yet, safety and a means to rebuild their lives and reduce vulnerability are what women also want and urgently need.

It is well established that all forms of violence against women and girls increase during crises, be they disasters or armed conflicts. It is less well understood that even after ‘escape’ from a war zone into camps or other shelter, or in the aftermath of a natural disaster, women and girls can still be under daily attack from their own partners and communities, and that this is not visible or well reported. We know, for example, that early child marriage—considered a form of violence—increases dramatically in response to vulnerability and lack of resources.

Individual stories underline the impossible choices women and girls face in emergency settings. Now a refugee in Jordan, Alaa and her family fled their home in Syria after hearing news of the kidnapping and rape of young women nearby. Yet the camp did not offer the secure refuge she needed. Fearing sexual violence in her new home, after neighbours were raped, Alaa’s uncles accepted an offer of marriage for her. Married at barely 15, she has stopped school, has one small daughter and another child on the way. Originally ambitious to become a teacher in Syria, Alaa is now learning other income-generating skills in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, where ‘Oases’ centres for women and girls offer women-only safe spaces, Arabic and English literacy, and computer classes to equip women with skills for a life outside the camp.

A 2013 assessment estimated the percentage of Syrian girl refugees in Jordan being married before age 18 to have risen from below 17 per cent before the conflict, to more than 50 per cent afterwards. Without access to sexual and reproductive health services, these girls have little or no control over pregnancy, with damaging or deadly consequences. Sixty per cent of preventable maternal deaths occur among women and girls who have been displaced or disadvantaged through conflict or natural disaster.

UN Women is addressing misconceptions of what girls and women really need most in the aftermath of disasters, and ensuring that their voice is heard in policy and decision-making processes. These needs are often inadequately identified and almost always insufficiently funded. A recent analysis of migrants and refugees in Serbia and fYR Macedonia underlined the lack of attention to the specific needs and vulnerabilities of women in humanitarian response planning and implementation.

Women have a large stake in the appropriateness of the services they receive, and must be involved in guiding those provisions to make sure they are directly relevant and effective. In Sierra Leone, for example, during the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease, initial quarantine plans ensured that women received food supplies, but did not account for water or fuel. Until the plans were adjusted, women continued to leave their houses to fetch firewood, which drove a risk of spreading infection.

Following Cyclone Winston in Fiji and Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, approximately half of each nation’s population was affected by loss of income from subsistence farming, market sales and tourism—all areas in which women were the major workforce and providers for their families. In Fiji, Rakiraki market vendor Varanisese Maisamoa used to sell fish, cooked food and fresh produce at the market, until the cyclone destroyed it. On a good day she could make between USD $100 and $150 profit, which she used to pay her water bill, her children’s schooling and medical care, and transport. In both locations, efforts to repair the markets, distribute seeds and replant the crops have restored women’s ability to earn and support their communities. 

Getting it right for women is central to finding appropriate solutions for the millions of families and individuals displaced, homeless, or making new homes in host countries. Getting it right for women is also vital to increasing the effectiveness of humanitarian response, bridging the humanitarian development nexus and accelerating the path to recovery.

These aspects will come under the spotlight during the first World Humanitarian Summit, which starts next week in Istanbul. The Summit explicitly builds on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that aims to end poverty and leave no one behind. Central to that Agenda is the recognition of the role that empowered girls and women play as change agents and leaders, as protectors of the environment and community, and as skillful workers capable of significantly influencing economies and ensuring a positive cycle of peace, stability and prosperity.