Q&A: Why does so little aid money go to preventing violence against women and girls?

‘There are ways we could make things better, but that starts with listening to what women and girls know is needed.’

Children at school in Bangui
Children at a school in Bangui take part in a class on gender violence in the Central African Republic. (UN Photo)

Some 14 million refugees and displaced women and girls were subjected to sexual violence in 2019, according to a new report from the International Rescue Committee.

Still, gender-based violence is often seen as a “second-tier priority” during a humanitarian response, and the lack of funding to prevent it bolsters that reality.

Of the $41.5 billion spent on humanitarian responses between 2016 and 2018, just $51.7 million – less than 0.2 percent – was spent on GBV prevention for women and girls.

And it isn’t just that donors aren’t spending adequately. Humanitarian organisations themselves aren’t asking for nearly enough money in the first place.

Dealing with the aftermath of GBV is difficult anywhere in the world, but in crisis and emergency settings, responses are often set up without considering the issue, says Mendy Marsh, who recently co-founded VOICE, an advocacy group that campaigns for women and girls be more involved in the humanitarian field.

Research shows that disasters and displacement exacerbate violence against women and girls. A 2017 study conducted in South Sudan found that 65 percent of women and girls had experienced violence in their lifetimes. Another 2014 study found that one in five women who had been displaced had experienced sexual violence.

The New Humanitarian spoke to Marsh about how the emergency aid system needs to change to better protect women and girls.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

TNH: How does violence against women and girls in humanitarian or displacement settings differ from what happens in non-emergency situations?

Mendy Marsh: It's often used as a tool to push people out of their homes and communities; it's used as a tool of warfare, and it's a very successful tool to break down communities and families.

It could be that families have fewer resources and large responsibilities, and they may think that the only way they can protect their daughters is to marry them off early, for example, to have fewer mouths to feed, but also to give them a future. They may fear that if she's sexually assaulted, she may not be able to get married in the future.

It could also be the way humanitarian aid is provided. Water and sanitation services may be set up in a way where women and girls may not use the toilet or shower facilities because they have to walk down a path that makes them walk by large groups of men. It could be that they don't have locks on the facilities, so women and girls can't secure themselves when they're bathing.

Lots of food distributions are not set up in a way where women and girls are protected. [Distributions] may be too heavy for them to carry, they may not be organised in a way where they can actually take all of the elements from their food distribution home, and they may have to rely on men with carts to carry them to the place where they're staying – there could be heightened levels of exploitation just in that moment. Often, food distributions are run by men, and there aren't any women present. So it's a lot of women and girls who are around a lot of men without any accountability or any way for them to make complaints or have increased protection.

[Women and girls] know where they're at risk. They know the specific things they're thinking about all day long, from the moment they wake up, how they're going to negotiate their day and their life and try to be safe. We all do that as women. But it's so much harder in environments where they may not have all the resources they need, or there may not be the infrastructure that's going to help them mitigate some of the risks.

There are ways we could make things better, but that starts with listening to what women and girls know is needed.

TNH: You recently wrote a report tracking how money is being directed towards preventing violence against women and girls in crisis settings. What did you find when you started following the money?

Marsh: We found that violence against women and girls is really underfunded. The funding requests do not even get close to matching the scale of the problem.

When a new emergency happens, the actors that are responding get together and develop a human humanitarian response plan. Then they put a figure on what is required to implement [it]. The asks in those humanitarian response plans related to addressing violence against women and girls are miniscule for what is one of our most significant global challenges. We're not asking for nearly enough money. But that's not where the problem stops. Those asks are not being met.

TNH: Why aren’t the asks being met? Why is this particular field underfunded in this way?

Marsh: It’s hard to trace the money, that's one thing. It's difficult to find really consistent, reliable information about the levels of investment to address violence against women and girls. Some of that is related to the fact that different entities or organisations use different terminology for describing their efforts on violence against women and girls.

We lack expertise in terms of advocating for prioritising addressing violence against women and girls. I remember one donor very clearly telling me, ’We wanted to fund gender-based violence (prevention), we wanted to increase the percentage of our budget for that issue. But we couldn't find any organisations who are ready to implement, or no one was asking.’

Sometimes that is because you have senior leadership that is prioritising other issues. You may have a UN country representative thinking, ‘Well, my mandate is water and sanitation, nutrition, education, health, and protection. But [violence against women and girls] is not my top priority, that'll come in later’. They’re not thinking about how they could actually be generating harm through their other sectors. If they're not thinking about the fact that addressing violence against women and girls is lifesaving, and that it has implications for all sectors of humanitarian action, they may not advocate for it.

Also, because we have such limited amounts of money going into addressing violence against women and girls in these settings, that leads to small-scale programmes that often remain invisible. There are limited opportunities for learning and evidence-building. There's a lack of capacity for addressing the problem, and the violence gets rendered invisible. Because the programming is not happening, it’s not being talked about. So it’s a vicious cycle of inadequate funding.

TNH: Why do smaller, women-led organisations in particular struggle to get the funding they need to prevent violence against women and girls?

Marsh: [Donors] don't want to cut many small checks to multiple organisations. They're worried about smaller organisations not being able to absorb large amounts of money, so they don't want to give these organisations sustainable, multi-year operational costs. But we know that you have to have the money to do the work. So, just like larger, international nonprofits, they really need capacity-building money and unearmarked operational funds.

When they do get the money... [donors] are using them for their own purposes, and potentially changing the vision and the mission of these organisations: they could be responsible for shifting them away from a feminist-oriented focus on violence against women and girls. So we would like to see donors start changing their systems to be able to get an increased amount of funding to these organisations rather than forcing smaller, women-led organisations to adapt their systems to be able to absorb the money.

There really are these great organisations and some of them are known and some of them are lesser-known. That’s one big thing that VOICE wants to try to change – we want to help some of the lesser-known organisations that maybe don't have a website or maybe don't have communications capacity. We want to help donors see all of the great work that some of these local women-led organisations are doing to make change.

TNH: How does contributing more money to women-led organisations address some of the root causes of violence? What types of programmes should donors focus on increasing funding to?

Marsh: We have evidence that having a strong women's movement is essential to addressing violence against women and girls. A lot of these organisations are doing essential community mobilisation, [and] a lot of them are responsible for creating the women's movements in their countries.

In some situations they are creating safe spaces for women and girls to come together to learn about how they can access different aid services or get information on sexual and reproductive health. They may be doing case work, so they may be the ones that women and girls are going to directly to get services when they are individually being exposed to violence. They are a critical service provider in many situations, especially in places where the government is not functioning and they don't have a social welfare safety net for survivors of violence.

TNH: What’s the best way to get women and girls more involved in humanitarian responses?

Marsh: Let’s use South Sudan as an example. There's a growing network of women-led organisations that's coming together in South Sudan, so we would send our team to the field to work specifically with that network, and help them navigate the humanitarian architecture, make sure that they are on the coordination list… so that they can actually get money through the humanitarian system when pooled funding mechanisms are in place.

Sometimes these organisations don't know that they can even be a vetted organisation to receive money. So we want to help them navigate that system and help humanitarian actors start seeing what women-led organisations can really do. If they engage them in an authentic way, their outcomes for humanitarian action are going to be better, because they're going to be really listening to what women and girls know is needed on the ground.

Donors can also ask. When they're reviewing funding proposals they can ask, specifically, “How did they consult with women and girls? How is what they put on paper relevant from the perspectives and views of women and girls?” People need to look around the room and say, “Where are the women-led civil society organisations? We know there are women leaders in this country, so why aren't they in the room?”

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