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The theme of this year’s World Humanitarian Day casts a spotlight on women on the frontlines of humanitarian crisis—those who risk their lives to promote health, safety, and wellbeing in contexts of conflict, famine, and other disasters. Women humanitarians are often unique in their ability to access and provide services to women and girls who face disproportionate vulnerabilities. At the same time, women humanitarians continue to face unique vulnerabilities themselves, brought to light in discussions of #AidToo, inspired by #MeToo. Widespread reports of sexual misconduct in humanitarian contexts reflected pervasive power imbalances that threaten women humanitarians’ own safety and security as they seek to provide support to others.
But calling out the problem is just the first step. What else is needed to uproot gender imbalances in the humanitarian space and ensure it becomes increasingly equitable and inclusive?
Recognize and reward women’s invaluable work: On World Humanitarian Day, and every day, we need to acknowledge the particularly critical role that women humanitarians play. My colleagues Cindy Huang and Liesl Schnabel recently put forth recommendations for how donors and the government of Bangladesh can better protect the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls in Rohingya refugee communities. They call for increased access to contraception, comprehensive post-rape care, safe abortion and post-abortion care, and STI testing services for refugee populations. Women humanitarians are often charged with providing these critical forms of support. Over 70 percent of the world’s health workforce are women, and women are especially pivotal in providing health (and other) services where social norms mandate gender segregation. Meeting the needs of women and girls in humanitarian contexts requires ensuring that women workers are present, well trained, compensated, and safe from sexual misconduct and other forms of harassment and abuse.
Strive for (and incentivize) gender parity at every level: While recognizing the work women humanitarians are already doing, we need to push for increased gender parity in humanitarian contexts, especially among peacekeeping and other security personnel, and among leaders and decisionmakers. Earlier this year, in line with Charles Kenny’s recommendations for how to increase the number of women in UN peacekeeping forces, Canada and partners launched the Elsie Initiative Fund, a promising start to improve gender parity among peacekeepers.
Set the tone from the top: Fortunately, in the wake of #AidToo, humanitarian leaders have recognized how critical it is to address gender inequalities in their sector. David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, recently announced his organization’s adoption of a feminist approach. Miliband’s announcement is welcome, and IRC’s approach of conducting gender analysis and hiring gender advisors across its programs, as well as instituting anti-sexual harassment training and other support for staff, should be modeled by others.
Take an intersectional approach: Jeremy Konyndyk’s recent note on the future of humanitarian reform emphasizes the need to make the sector increasingly “people-driven,” amplifying the voices of affected people so often overlooked in decision-making. Leaders seeking to overhaul current power imbalances in humanitarian contexts should take an intersectional approach, paying attention to gender as well as vulnerabilities stemming from individuals’ race, class, religion, age, disability status, and other demographic characteristics.
To ensure women humanitarian workers can do their job safely and effectively, change needs to start from all sides: from policymakers and humanitarian leaders to donors and beyond. Only then will a more inclusive and equitable approach become possible.