Why women humanitarian workers matter

Julie Lafrenière Gender, Gender & Development Journal, Humanitarian

August 19 is World Humanitarian Day, when we mark the work done by humanitarian staff all over the world, who often risk their lives to support people affected by crises. This year is dedicated to women; the thousands of women working on the front lines in their own communities in some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous places. Women are often the first to respond and the last to leave, and constitute a vital part of the global humanitarian response.

Yet, any discussion about women humanitarians can seem empty if we don’t consider their struggles in contexts where gender inequality and discrimination are rampant, and in systems, organizations and structures that can be equally so. And time and again, during and after crises, we see that pre-existing gender inequality and discrimination can create often extreme hardships that specifically affect women and girls. They can face restricted mobility, sexual exploitation and abuse, and increased levels of gender-based violence. Women’s livelihoods are affected far more than men’s, and girls in crises are more likely than boys to lose out on education. What’s more, healthcare in humanitarian settings may be poor or non-existent, and this obviously has particular impact on women: 60 per cent of preventable maternal deaths take place in emergency settings.

For me, and likely for many other feminists in the humanitarian sector, recent data on the chronic underfunding of gender equality programming in humanitarian contexts confirmed the big bad fact that we know already, from personal experience: if money is power, then we still have very little of it. Between 2016-18 a mere 0.12 per cent of humanitarian funding was channelled towards gender-based violence programming – working out at around USD$2.00 for each woman or girl at risk of violence in crisis and conflict settings.  In 2019, this figure rose by a paltry amount, to 0.3 per cent.

if money is power, then we still have very little of it

Feminists and their allies are used to the slow speed of change – we have been present and working for at least forty years to change the sector root and branch, so that women’s priorities, knowledge and needs are driving programming in the sector. Because we know when women are involved in prevention and crisis response, it leads to better humanitarian outcomes and lowers risks for entire households and communities as well as women and girls themselves.

But progress does happen. At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, the largest donors and humanitarian organizations agreed on a ‘Grand Bargain’, to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian action, and to get more resources into the hands of people in need. Although the original commitments of the Grand Bargain were largely gender-blind,  parallel commitments made at the very same Summit celebrated the important work of feminists, gender advocates and their allies, confirming the importance of  gender equality and women’s empowerment in humanitarian action.

One key aspect of the Grand Bargain that does offer promise is its localisation agenda. This push to involve people ‘on the ground’ as empowered actors in humanitarian response offers a potential space for local women’s organizations, networks and advocates who have direct, valuable knowledge of the realities on the ground. The trick is how to support them without further marginalising or co-opting their agendas.

But my feminist vision – one where we recognize the value of women’s rights organizations, where gender equality is prioritized in humanitarian settings, and where the structures and systems in place rebalance unequal power – is easier to have than to realize! We need the political will of existing senior decision-makers to move rhetoric on gender justice and women’s rights into reality. We need continued pressure from feminists and their allies inside and outside the sector.  And we need to inspire colleagues with examples of innovation and impact. There’s a thirst for such knowledge, which is why I gladly accepted an invitation to be a guest editor for the journal Gender & Development’s Humanitarian Action and Crisis Response issue, commissioning articles at the cutting-edge of gender and humanitarian action. Read about participatory feminist WASH design from Oxfam; the piloting of blockchain technologies by UN-Women; and CARE’s development of rapid gender analysis to overcome the tyranny of the urgent in crisis planning

This year’s World Humanitarian Day opens up on a moment of both crisis and opportunity for feminists in the humanitarian sector, as #AidToo creates renewed commitment to be part of a solution rather than part of the problem; and as women’s rights organizations are expected to be more and more involved, facing demands to participate in the work, but without the financial and political backing they need to do it well. In the journal issue, we also reflect on humanitarian work and stress in post-colonial, profoundly unequal, patriarchal contexts. Senior managers in humanitarian agencies are currently consciously recognizing the need for a fundamental values and culture shift in our organizations for the good of both the communities we serve, and our own staff.

We’re living through interesting times. Suddenly feminists in the humanitarian sector who can remember the time when we couldn’t use the F word are now not only allowed to use it, but encouraged. Let’s hope this new openness to feminism’s vision of equality and empowerment heralds the transformation the sector needs to support its women humanitarians, and cope with crises in the coming years.


Julie Lafrenière