Women and girls face added risks during crises, from sexual violence to higher maternal death. But women also face barriers when it comes to taking part in formal emergency response – a crucial shortcoming for the humanitarian sector, which has pledged sweeping reforms to make aid more effective.
That’s according to Suzy Madigan, senior humanitarian advisor for gender and protection with CARE International. Recent research from the organisation examines the often-unheralded role of women in humanitarian response. The study included interviews and focus groups with more than 60 members of women-led organisations, community leaders, international NGOs, and UN and government agencies, as well as online surveys with dozens more.
The research explores what women and girls are doing to protect themselves and their communities in emergencies around the world: informal women’s groups in Syria, for example, as well as women leaders in Malawi and Vanuatu. But it also shows that women and girls are still often sidelined in aid responses to disasters and conflicts.
Gender norms are an obstacle to greater participation, but Madigan believes common aid sector practices – such as stringent donor regulations and widespread NGO “subcontracting” – are also preventing more women from taking part. She says smaller women’s groups, which may not have the financial systems in place to deal with strict donor rules, are often overlooked as big international NGOs turn to more established local groups, often led by men.
Aid groups have promised to “localise” aid by shifting power into the hands of local responders. But Madigan says the broader sector must also do a better job of ensuring women and girls can also participate and take leadership roles in these local responses.
IRIN spoke with Madigan about how humanitarian responses can be more inclusive, the role of women in the aid sector’s “localisation” commitments, and the risks of ignoring the needs and abilities of half the world’s population in crises.
IRIN: How does a lack of women aid workers hinder humanitarian response?
Suzy Madigan: By not understanding what are the protection risks facing women and girls and, crucially, what are the solutions that they themselves would suggest, then we're failing 50 percent of the population that we're trying to serve.
I would say that excluding women responders also leaves a huge humanitarian resource untapped. Women are not passive victims waiting for assistance. They're volunteers, activists, and women-led groups. They're risking their lives already to help others and speak up for others. And we should support that as humanitarians, because not doing so isn’t just discriminatory, it's also short-sighted and humanitarian responses are suffering because of it.
IRIN: What does a response that is not inclusive of women look like?
Madigan: If we're not careful, humanitarian responses can reinforce barriers and discrimination. If humanitarians aren't doing a proper gender analysis when they are entering an area, then they might not understand that certain community-based decision-making structures can exclude women.
So, for example, this can happen when humanitarians are doing needs assessments and they are working through male-dominated structures, without going the extra mile to include and consult women, and understanding what the barriers to their exclusion are.
Those kind of needs assessments aren't reflecting actual genuine protection risks that are being experienced by women and what some of the solutions are. If the answers to all your questions are coming from men, then you're clearly not going to be understanding what are the particular issues affecting women.
IRIN: The research included interviews with dozens of humanitarian workers working with local groups and large aid agencies. What did they say about how humanitarian organisations have tried to include more women?
Madigan: It differs across the board. And one thing which is absolutely crucial is to have senior management buy-in, and certainly the research was showing that in many cases, where there were meaningful partnerships with women-led organisations, quite often that came from the advocacy of just a few individuals and, quite often, protection and gender staff. But where that buy-in from senior staff wasn't there, where senior staff didn't see the value of women-led organisations, certainly that collaboration was weaker.
In some cases, INGOs might be consulting with women-led organisations, but not fully engaging them and also sometimes not compensating women for their time – in a way treating them like technical advisors, but not remunerating them or supporting them given the fact that it takes women away from unpaid care work or other livelihoods options.
Another example of poor collaboration is when agencies engage with women “tokenistically” – going out to speak to only a few people, so that it’s more of a box-ticking exercise rather than fully engaging with them. Or not looking at the barriers to engaging women more widely.
IRIN: What are some barriers that make it difficult for more women to engage with the formal aid sector?
Madigan: Clearly gender norms can restrict women’s mobility and ability to participate. Often, women are exposed to harassment because they're either tackling repressive gender norms, or by the very fact that they're trying to work in humanitarian response or gender justice more widely. They're seen as a threat, and exposed to harassment and security issues.
And there’s time poverty. Women traditionally have an unequal share of unpaid care work, which limits their time and flexibility to go to meetings or to be involved in more community-based volunteer work. That's exacerbated in emergencies and it's compounded as well by poverty.
IRIN: What about the barriers within the aid sector itself? One issue you identify is the practice of “subcontracting”, which sees big international NGOs, who often receive the bulk of donor funding, partner up with local organisations who then implement these projects on behalf of the INGO. How does this affect the inclusion of women-led organisations in humanitarian response?
Madigan: There is such a focus on financial due diligence, and on counterterrorism regulations and so on. Because of that, it quite often can be problematic for women's organisations because they tend to be newer or smaller and therefore often do not have those administrative and financial systems in place. It's just easier for INGOs to go with more established civil society organisations, which are more likely to be male-led.
So it means that we're complying with donor regulations, but we're failing to bring in newer voices and the voices of women.
Quite often, women are also excluded from decision-making structures, which also limits women’s participation in humanitarian response. Smaller women’s organisations are often unfamiliar with how the humanitarian system and clusters work and are left out of those meetings. This means women don't have many opportunities to build up their understanding of how humanitarian decision-making processes work and to develop their leadership skills. So that subsequently is limiting their confidence and capacity to engage.
IRIN: Most big aid agencies have made commitments to do a better job of including local women’s groups in humanitarian response. What needs to happen for these promises to become a reality?
Madigan: The talk is there, but to really put talk into action there needs to be concrete actions put behind it. So, for example, building in budgeting. These things costs money, and to do needs assessments that actively include women when women are hard to reach might require extra funding.
You need more women staff to be needs assessors, for example. You might need a female driver to take two women out to the field to be able to conduct those surveys and focus groups. It might be that if you want to actively support women-led organisations to navigate the complexities of compliance requirements in subcontracting, then you might need to pay for extra staff to work on support services within your INGO.
And when women's organisations are coming under threat, then there needs to be a budget there for people to be able to be transported out quickly, perhaps to relocate. There are costs attached to that: investing to strengthen women’s organisations as a whole, and not just their capacity to implement a specific project. That's something that’s in the hands of donors: to look at this issue as a whole and to provide funding to INGOs across the board to help support in that way; and also to open up funding mechanisms for local civil society organisations to apply for funding independently themselves.
IRIN: These issues of long-term funding and capacity are the same types of problems that many local NGOs and civil society groups point to when talking about the aid sector’s “localisation” promises. What’s the link between the “localisation” goals and the inclusion of more women and women-led organisations in humanitarian responses?
Madigan: I would argue that at the moment there is a disconnect between what many humanitarian organisations and agencies have signed up to and how that is being operationalised. There is still a long way to go between the policy commitments and how that's being translated on the ground.
There is quite rightly a focus on trying to reach the largest amount of people in a way that delivers value for money. But at the moment that's translating into, “let's just get the money out the door quickly and in the easiest way possible”, which often means only working with those more established, more male-dominated community-based organisations.
But if our aim is to reach large numbers of beneficiaries in the most cost-effective way, then working with women is exactly what we should be doing, because the responses will be more effective.
IRIN: But if more local organisations are receiving funding and taking leadership roles, and if the majority of established local organisations are led by men, is there a contradiction between the overarching goals of “localisation” and including more women in humanitarian response?
Madigan: It's not inevitable that localisation means that we are only working with men or male-led organisations, just because the majority of civil society organisations are male-led. I would say it means understanding that localisation is also not just about working with established CSOs, given that many women responders are not in formal CSOs.
We can't just accept the status quo that because most local responders are men, therefore we will only respond with those male responders.
Many women who are providing protection support in particular are in informal groups. So it requires humanitarian organisations going the extra mile to understand what women are doing to protect themselves and others in these humanitarian responses. And that doesn't always look like a traditional civil society organisation.
We can't just accept the status quo that because most local responders are men, therefore we will only respond with those male responders. We need to build up the capacity of women responders and recognise that women responders aren't just in civil society organisations.
IRIN: All of this requires extra effort – and extra resources?
Madigan: Humanitarian responses are always underfunded, there’s so much to do in such little time, and there are life-saving consequences. But the cost and effort of contracting smaller organisations, building up their capacity, building up their confidence, and engaging different voices is going to be worth it because it will lead to more effective humanitarian responses. But it does require working creatively to understand how to overcome the difficulties.
IRIN: So how do you combine the urgency of humanitarian response with the goals of including more women and these smaller women-led organisations?
Madigan: There is a need to build up these relationships. Part of that is about investing in emergency preparedness with many of these women's organisations and engaging them prior to humanitarian crises, as well as working with them as the crisis happens. Then, it’s maintaining those relationships once you move into a recovery phase, and then longer-term development. But gender justice issues are relevant throughout every phase.
If the humanitarian sector is serious about localisation, then taking a gendered approach to localisation is fundamental. Otherwise it won't be truly localised. Localisation means making extra efforts to engage with traditionally marginalised groups, and that includes women, that includes people with disabilities, that includes sexual and gender minorities, that includes people of different ages.
I think that whilst many organisations are conscious that gender is an important aspect of localisation that must be addressed, what the research is showing is that there is a gap between what we're saying we want to do as the humanitarian sector, and what women responders are experiencing on the ground. And that gap needs to be closed.
(This interview was edited for length and clarity)
(TOP PHOTO: Tsunami-affected children receive food items in Rajabasa in Lampung province on 25 December 2018, three days after the disaster - caused by activity at a volcano known as the "child" of Krakatoa - hit the west coast of Indonesia's Java island. CREDIT: Mohd Rasfan/AFP)