All UK partners delivering humanitarian aid to the Philippines are now required to assess the risk of violence against women and girls and address their needs in their operations as part of a £21.6m government package to tackle sexual violence in emergency situations.
Britain's international development secretary, Justine Greening, said the needs of women and girls in crises would be a priority for the UK government. Often, targeted action to support women in emergencies is not prioritised at the first stage of relief efforts because sexual violence is not considered life-threatening.
However, in times of disaster women and girls are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. According to the NGO World Vision, in Bangladesh, 62% of marriages of under-18 girls between 2007 and 2011 took place in the 12 months after Cyclone Sidr. In Kenya, between February and May 2012, reports of sexual violence increased by 36% in Hagadere and Kambioos refugee camps, compared with the previous three months, after severe drought.
"There is a serious gap in disaster planning where protecting girls and women should have been. Some say this is an optional extra rather than the life-saving intervention it is," Greening told a high-level meeting on protecting women and girls in emergencies on Wednesday.
Greening said that of the $1.4bn raised for emergency relief after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, less than 1% was earmarked to address violence against women. "In the Philippines, making sure women and girls are protected from violence is absolute critical," she said, adding that a donor meeting to look at reducing violence against women in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan would follow the high-level event.
The meeting heard from UN agencies, government officials, multilateral agencies and NGOs. The first two all-male panels of the morning came as a surprise to some. Explaining the absence of women on his panel, David Miliband, chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, said the ministers were women and were in charge, and the panel members were simply "dancing to their tune".
The Department for International Development (DfID) saw the event as a chance to announce £21.6m in new funding for work to protect women and girls. Some £3m will be given to the UN Population Fund to support its work in Syria in creating safe spaces for women and girls and strengthening health services.
More than £5m will be used to support vulnerable families in Lebanon and Jordan, to avoid the need to turn to child labour, forced and early marriage, and "survival" or transactional sex, in which women have sex in exchange for goods.
Another £4m will be given to the International Committee of the Red Cross for its programmes to support survivors of sexual violence, while the remaining £9m will support programmes undertaken by the International Rescue Committee in Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia to empower girls to better protect themselves.
Greening told the Guardian that money would be channelled through local women's organisations, although it was not clear how much or by whom. "This is very much about early, fast action in humanitarian situations, which has to mean working with grassroots, local organisations already there on the ground," she said. "UN agencies can't do everything on their own. We have to immediately look for existing organisations that we can work through."
Earlier this year, Britain's international development committee recommended that DfID channel more of its funding through local women's organisations, which are sometimes better able to act swiftly and subtly in difficult situations.
Nine donor governments – including the UK, US, Australia, Sweden and Japan – six UN agencies, the ICRC, the International Organisation for Migration and 21 international NGOs signed a communique outlining a long list of future action points.
Building on previous commitments – including the 2006 Brussels Call to Action, this year's G8 agreement on preventing sexual violence in conflict and the declaration from the Commission on the Status of Women in March – the communique commits to a series of points, collated under 28 headings, most of which will acquire additional funding to achieve.
Commitments include identifying 20 priority countries that should be adequately stocked with post-rape treatment supplies by 2015; developing new guidelines on planning mass evacuations; creating new posts in response teams for gender-violence experts; installing solar street lamps in camps and settlements; and increasing funding for gender-based violence initiatives.
Sweden's international development minister, Hillevi Engström, who co-chaired the event, said: "We have all the paperwork, polices and resolutions in place. But implementation is the weakest link in the chain. It's time to stop talking and start acting."
Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told the meeting he would "stop organising events on the issue in Oslo and devote all my attention to concrete action in the field".