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Women and Humanitarian Work – A Decade of Reflection

Opinion Editorial by Aishath Noora Mohamed, the Secretary General of the Maldivian Red Crescent, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of both MRC (August 16) and World Humanitarian Day (August 19).

19 August 2019, MVT 14:02
Women humanitarian personnel of the Maldivian Red Crescent. PHOTO/MRC
19 August 2019, MVT 14:02

The 2004 Tsunami was a life-changing experience for me. As a young woman volunteer providing Psychosocial Support to affected people during the very initial phase, it was my first experience in finding a deep and profound meaning in humanitarian action. It was also a time when I met many inspirational women, from those leading and organizing the Psychosocial Support teams, to the women who were managing their day to day lives of taking care of their families and communities, amidst their own losses of their homes, livelihoods, and in some cases, children or family members. In the communities that faced devastating losses of their homes and infrastructure, women were natural leaders in organizing teams to manage the communal responsibilities of organizing and managing the temporary shelters that were provided. It was an experience that made me a firm believer of the value of women humanitarians.

Today, marks the tenth anniversary of the World Humanitarian Day, with a focus on women humanitarians and their contributions around the world. An issue extremely close to our hearts, we are excited to be part of this celebration, happening during the tenth anniversary week of the Maldivian Red Crescent. Keeping with the theme, I decided to challenge myself to write down ten realities of women working in humanitarian sector, including ways women contribute and bring deeper meaning to humanitarian work, and some persisting challenges within the sector.

Aishath Noora Mohamed, the Secretary General of the Maldivian Red Crescent. PHOTO/MRC

1. Some of the most well-known personalities that shaped the humanitarian landscape of today were women, such as Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. Following the devastating Battle of Solferino 160 years back, the humanitarians that worked with Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, to provide first aid and care to wounded soldiers, regardless of nationality, were mostly women - the first humanitarian action, that inspired the formation of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement we see today.

2. Evidence around the world shows that women often are the first responders in an emergency or crisis. Women actively participating in humanitarian work is certainly not a foreign concept in the Maldives. In many of the catastrophic events, we see women taking the lead, especially in the most critical phase. The experiences of Maldivian Red Crescent have been similar. Women’s role as volunteers responding to humanitarian needs of the country, from providing first aid and Psychosocial Support to mobilizing and distributing relief in emergencies had been prominent.

3. Women participating as first responders had been recognized to be an important factor for effective and successful disaster response. Women’s leadership in these settings bring in a diversity of perspectives, and may contribute to further increasing women’s participation, and an increased recognition of the role of women in disaster response.

4. The impact of disasters and crises are different for men, women, boys and girls. Evidence shows that women and girls are disproportionately affected and may have unique vulnerabilities in the aftermath. Ensuring women participate and are represented in humanitarian services, including decision making, can improve how much gender is considered in programming, and access to humanitarian services for women and girls.

5. There is a marked increase in gender-based violence towards women in situations of conflict and disasters. This means that women humanitarians are essential to build trust and for the creation of safe spaces, and support women and girls experiencing or at risk of gender-based violence. They can play a role in providing Psychosocial Support and linking those affected to professional services.

6. There is evidence that pre-existing gender-based discriminations entrenched within the culture could be heightened during crisis situations. It is seen that there is an increased risk of gender-based violence for women and girls in humanitarian settings, that needs to be consciously and strategically addressed within the design and implementation of all aspects of humanitarian services. By engaging women humanitarians at all levels of programming, this could be achieved more effectively. Increased number of women working in humanitarian settings could lead to positive impacts in terms of addressing power imbalances and reducing male dominated work cultures. In a humanitarian setting, this could lead to work environments that are more vigilant of forms of abuse, harassment, and gender-based violence

7. Increased number of women working in humanitarian settings bring unparalleled access in some situations of crises and disasters, especially in more conservative communities. Having women aid workers on the field ensures that, women in crises and conflict, who as mentioned before experience and bear the burden of disasters and violent differently and disproportionately, feel more at ease and comfortable in the presence of other women. This also means that the crucial factor of trust is built among beneficiaries and humanitarian workers.

Some reflections on women in leadership positions and the working life for women humanitarians -

8. Women in leadership had been understood to be an essential factor to increase effectiveness of humanitarian organizations. By encouraging women to take up decision making positions, we could also contribute positively to build trust and credibility of the leadership to understand and address humanitarian challenges through gender sensitive and responsive policies.

9. Despite the number of women engaged in humanitarian work, there remains deep-rooted challenges for women in the humanitarian sector, that need to be addressed, for us to do better and to reach further. One of the most pressing issues of today is the gap in women’s representation when it comes to leadership positions in the humanitarian sector. A recent internal audit done by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) brought forth some disappointing findings - despite most Red Cross Red Crescent Societies having more women than men in their workforces, only 21% had women Presidents and 31% had women Secretary Generals. Most other humanitarian organizations also do not fare much better.

10. Women humanitarians go through similar struggles as women in other sectors, such as balancing work and family responsibilities and gendered pay-gaps. Other factors unique to the humanitarian sector, such as unpredictable work patterns to respond to emergencies, travel and long work hours, make it challenging for women to continue working in the field especially as mothers to young children.

Despite the value women contribute to humanitarian work, we are still not leveraging the extremely rich knowledge and experiences that are available to us. To be more effective, and to reach further through our humanitarian services, evidence is clear that all humanitarian organizations must become even more diverse and inclusive, to ensure that there is ample access and to ensure the protection of dignity and rights of everyone, especially women.

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