What difference do women leaders make in humanitarian crises?

What difference do women leaders make in humanitarian crises?

Image Caption: Marie-Andree of ActionAid Haiti distributes emergency kits in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew with ActionAid’s local partners—KPGA. Credit: ActionAid

​​​​​​At ActionAid, we’ve been promoting women’s leadership in emergencies for many years. But the question never fails to come up - from partners, allies and public as a whole - why women?

Why, in life or death situations, would women’s leadership matter? What difference could it possibly make? And, surely it’s better just to get on with the response and worry about women’s rights later… when we’ve managed to meet all basic needs?

So… why?

Women’s voices must be heard

Because it is the right thing to do. Women must contribute to the decisions that affect their lives as an urgent, human rights imperative. Women make up 50% of the population but often remain excluded from groups and processes that determine their own futures.

In the heavily male dominated world of humanitarian aid, the needs and rights of women can be, and frequently are, overlooked, ignored and deprioritised.

The women we work with tell us over and over again: they need a response that meets their specific health needs. But on the whole, humanitarian responses they see are ‘gender-blind’.

A gender-blind humanitarian response denies women and girls their rights to access services, leaving them at increased risk of gender-based violence, allowing them to lose their livelihoods, and to face increased vulnerability to a range of risks, including child marriage and dropping out of school.

That’s why, by embedding women’s leadership in humanitarian contexts, ActionAid is prioritising the rights of women - at a time when their rights are most violated.


Whole communities benefit from women’s leadership

ActionAid’s experience shows if you put women in the driving seat, not only will women’s lives and livelihoods be protected with dignity, but the wider community will benefit. And, ultimately, the whole humanitarian response will improve.

Before Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti in 2016, ActionAid had been working with women’s groups on preparedness for disasters. One of these women, Nagene, was a director of a kindergarten as well as Secretary General of a women’s solidarity network in the North of Haiti, and her response was immediate. She told us:

“It’s very important for women to play a leadership role during emergencies. This can prevent serious violations like violence against women. Women’s presence itself is a deterrence which safeguards women’s rights. Aid also reaches local people more when local women’s organisations are involved.”


Leadership changes women’s lives

Women’s leadership can be transformative to women’s lives. Facilitating women’s leadership, and supporting them to recognise their existing capacities and ways to overcome barriers, builds self-confidence and empowers women.  It enables women to find power within themselves and, collectively, to challenge negative power structures. And it serves as a model to other women and girls.

We support women to take decisions, to challenge when their needs are not met, and to understand their rights. This starts to chip away at the structures that keep them powerless outside of emergency contexts - starting the process of long-term, transformative change.


The challenges ahead

In promoting women’s leadership and embedding it into our humanitarian response, ActionAid is putting women’s rights at the centre of humanitarianism. Have we got it completely right? Not yet.

We are working in contexts where working on women’s leadership is immensely challenging, and we have to start by taking steps in the right direction. We must continue to embed feminism within staff and the partners we work with in countries that are vulnerable to crises.

We must build the capacity of frontline staff and partners. We must meet our commitments by ensuring our own staff working in humanitarian contexts are 50% female, and our partners are women-led or women’s rights organisations.

We must be forgiving of the idea that this will all take time, and ensure we are creating a culture that continues to be enabling. 

We must celebrate each success we have along the way, for example, in our work in the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh. Years of conservatism among the refugee population has meant that bringing women together in safe spaces, developing women’s accountability committees and encouraging adolescent girls to learn new skills has been critical to begin challenging power dynamics.

Each and every challenge in this context is a step forward. Most importantly, we mustn’t give up.

Find out more about ActionAid’s work changing the lives of women and girls living in poverty.


This blog was written by Lila Caballero, Head of Research & Programme Policy at ActionAid UK. Lila will be a on the panel at the breakout session entitled 'Gender in the context of SDG8' at the Alliance Annual Conference on 25 September 2019. 

Check out the full programme and book your place today!