Sunday, May 1, 2016
ActionAid International

The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 provides a unique opportunity for governments, UN agencies and civil society actors to set an ambitious agenda for empowering women and girls as change agents and leaders in humanitarian action and ensuring gender responsive humanitarian programming. However for these commitments to translate into meaningful action, it is critical to respond to the barriers that currently impact women’s leadership in emergencies, and build upon the existing efforts of women first responders and women-led organisations. ActionAid has produced this paper to ensure commitments arising from the World Humanitarian Summit are grounded in the realities of women affected by humanitarian crises and reflect their priorities. 

This paper draws together findings from focus group discussions with women from multiple regions and draws upon ActionAid’s experience from a range of humanitarian contexts, including rapid and slow onset disasters and protracted crisis. It presents the barriers and opportunities for women’s leadership in humanitarian response as identified by women from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nepal, occupied Palestinian territory (Gaza), the Philippines and Vanuatu. This data is overlayed with available evidence to validate the findings and demonstrate their applicability across diverse contexts.

The research confirms that women bring invaluable contextual knowledge, skills, resources and experiences to emergency preparedness, response and resilience building, contributing to the emerging evidence base that women’s leadership contributes to better disaster preparedness and risk reduction; more efficient and effective humanitarian response; and inclusive and sustainable peace building and conflict resolution in communities. However, consistent with the findings of ActionAid’s South Asian Women’s Resilience Index the conceptualisation of women as victims of disasters, alongside other barriers, has precluded them from being considered as active agents in humanitarian action and fulfilment of their right to equal participation. 

Women report experiencing numerous socio-cultural and economic barriers to exercising their agency and leadership in humanitarian crises. These barriers include patriarchal gender attitudes and norms that restrict women’s participation in public space and undermine their contribution as leaders; women’s burden of unpaid work; a lack of experience and opportunities to participate in leadership and exclusion from emergency response decision-making structures; low self-confidence; poverty and access to resources; and low levels of education and literacy. 

There are a number of opportunities to build on women’s existing skills, capacities and leadership in times of crisis and beyond to transform women’s status in society. Key strategies identified through the research include investing in women’s leadership in emergency preparedness and resilience building; utilising women’s unique skills and knowledge in humanitarian response; supporting women’s mobilising and organising efforts; increasing women’s access to resources through targeted economic empowerment programming; better collection of gender disaggregated data; distributing resources directly to women and their organisations; and raising awareness of women’s rights in communities. 

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