As the leaders of the international aid world gathered in London's Lancaster House to discuss the protection of women and girls in emergencies, the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines was on everyone's mind. Women and girls in storm-hit areas, some the only survivors of their families, are struggling to receive basic aid in a situation of deteriorating security; this, speakers said, is the moment when responders need to be providing protection - right from the very start of the emergency.
The meeting, a high-level event for governments, UN agencies, international NGOs and civil society, was meant to reach an agreement on a "fundamental new approach to protecting girls and women in emergency situations, both man-made and natural disasters."
But UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres spoke of how difficult it had been to change working culture in the field, to make staff understand that protection is an essential part of humanitarian work.
"We need to do something very strong to change the psychological attitudes of our staff on the ground," he said. "In emergencies, people tend to say, 'The important thing is to save lives - move the trucks, bring the tents, find the water, distribute the food.' But the truth is that just as important as that is to make sure that key protection concerns are put at the centre of emergency response."
Changing how aid is provided
Keeping this in mind affects the way temporary accommodation is designed. For example, women's safety is improved when they have access to separate sanitation facilities with privacy and lockable doors, and when they do not have to take long, dark walks to use the toilets at night. Similarly, women's security is improved when they have cooking facilities that do not require them to travel long distances, into isolated areas, in search of firewood.
These considerations affect how aid is organized.
World Food Programme Executive Director Ertharin Cousin - who left the meeting early to fly to the Philippines - spoke passionately about the need to get food distribution right.
"If it's a food drop, we know that women can't get to the food fast enough, and as a result what happens is that they are forced to make tough decisions about what they will give the men in return for food. If it's a voucher distribution, we have to protect women so that they receive the vouchers, because too often, if the vouchers go to the men, the women are forced to compromise themselves to get the vouchers they need to provide food for their children."
These issues also affect what gets put onto the planes delivering aid. Among the items the UK is sending to the Philippines are solar lanterns that can charge mobile phones. The lanterns make women feel more secure after dark and enable them to call for help if they feel threatened.
Several speakers addressed the need to include reproductive health services in emergency situations - including safe abortion for victims of rape. While abortion was not mentioned in the final communiqué, Justine Greening, the UK secretary of state for international development, said, "It's absolutely vital that we provide the life-saving services that women actually need, as opposed to those that we might feel most comfortable providing. Contraception, prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and safe abortion are life-saving services. And yet they are often ignored in humanitarian responses."
The London meeting produced a communiqué stressing the commitment of all parties to strengthen efforts to protect girls and women and to create a safer environment for them during and after conflict and natural disasters. It also produced a detailed, 10-page work plan, in which governments, agencies and NGOs in attendance put their names to specific promises and actions: to forestall violence, to increase the numbers of specialist staff, to improve capacity, and to support survivors of rape and violence.
Threat of sexual violence
Rape is not the only form of violence threatening vulnerable women and girls, but it is one of the most extreme, and it can affect the lives of victims and their families long after the attack is over.
Jade*, a survivor of violence in northern Uganda, told IRIN, "People say they will help you, but they are not really your friend. They just want to use you and spit you out. They make you their house-girl - you cook, you take the children to school - and sometimes when men are in that house, you become a sex object for them."
Even the fear of rape makes women vulnerable and can push them into coping strategies that cause problems. In a pre-recorded video, Syrian refugee women in Lebanon explained that, more than the bombing and shelling, fear of what might happen to their daughters had finally pushed them to leave home. Aid staff working with the refugees said that many girls were being forced into underage marriages because their parents thought it would protect them from rape, as single girls were targets more often than married women.
"We have failed"
The speakers at the meeting were eloquent, and the arguments were persuasive, but will it make a difference? Zainab Hawa Bangura, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, told IRIN she hoped it would.
"I think there's a realization," she says, "that as an international community - UN agencies, donors and NGOs - we have failed. We have not been able to see these problems that are right under our noses. And that is good, because people are now owning up, and coming out with very basic, practical things that need to be done on the ground to protect women. At the policy level, the leadership, we have recognized the gaps, but the biggest challenge is the implementation on the ground. That's where the difference will be made."
Bangura, like everyone else at the meeting, has been horrified by what is happening in the Philippines. "You open the television, and you see the number of children who have been affected - more children than you can imagine. What do you do for those children? How can you protect them? How do you make sure they are able to pick up the pieces and go to school, and that the journey to school, the journey to get access to food does not endanger their lives? So many children - it's just so heart-breaking and painful for me."
The pictures from Tacloban, one of the cities worst-hit by Typhoon Haiyan, are especially poignant for those who have lived through violence and conflict. Julienne Lusenge of the Congolese Women's Fund told IRIN, "We are afraid for them, because we are from a country which has lived through 10, 20 years of violence against women, and when we see this happening in another region, we say, 'Oh, that's the end for them; the same thing is going to happen to them as happened to us', and it makes us very upset."
Jade, too, has been watching the images of the typhoon. "All over the world, women are suffering," she says. "Well, at least the women in the Philippines are on television, but in the country I come from, the people are not on television, but they are suffering and they are never mentioned. Even men, they suffer. They suffer in silence, you know?"
*not a real name
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today.