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Why ActionAid promotes women’s leadership in emergencies

Sabita Rani leading a village group in Bangladesh

Breaking a vicious cycle of disempowerment

ActionAid has been promoting women’s leadership in emergencies for many years now. Yet this question never fails to come up, from individuals within the organisation as well as from partners and allies: why women? What difference can it possibly make having women’s leadership? Surely, it’s better just to get on with the response and worry about women’s rights after we have managed to meet all the basic needs?

So why do we prioritise women?

Firstly, because it is the right thing to do. Women must contribute to the decisions that affect their lives. Women make up 50% of the population, but often remain excluded from groups and processes that determine their own futures.  International commitments to gender equality and women’s empowerment have been made by governments across the world – yet we are failing to live up to these promises.  By increasing women’s leadership in humanitarian contexts, ActionAid is prioritising the rights of women at a time when their rights are most violated and when they can be at their most vulnerable.

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

Humanitarian responses remain, in the majority, ‘gender blind’. This means women are denied access to vital services and protection that leaves them at increased risk of gender-based violence and the loss of their livelihoods. Their heightened vulnerability in emergencies creates a vicious cycle of disempowerment.

Secondly, our experience – working in more than 45 countries around the world – shows that if you put women in the driving seat, not only will their lives and livelihoods be protected with dignity, but also the wider community will benefit and the whole humanitarian response will be improved.

“I made myself an obstacle to them… I kept defending women.” - Hurricane Matthew responder Nadège prevented women being sidelined

We had been working with groups of women in Haiti on preparedness for disasters, so when Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, they were ready. Nadège Pierre, director of a kindergarten and secretary general of a women’s solidarity network in northern Haiti, responded immediately.

Nadège Pierre leads a woman’s organisation in Haiti and has worked with ActionAid on disaster risk reduction
Nadège Pierre leads a woman’s organisation in Haiti and has worked with ActionAid on disaster risk reduction.

“ActionAid sent information to all the women trained in emergency leadership before the hurricane struck. I helped to provide shelter, secure hygiene and coordinate with the local civil protection directorate,” she says.

“The civil protection [officials] weren’t involving women, and women were being side-lined in the [aid] distributions. I made myself an obstacle to them. I refused their offers to give me materials for myself as a way to calm me down. Instead, I kept defending women who had been standing in lines for hours, while the food was not being given to the most affected people.”

Nadège adds: “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.”

Thirdly, women’s leadership can be transformative. Supporting women to recognise their capabilities and find ways to overcome barriers, is empowering and builds self-confidence. We enable women to find the power within themselves and collectively challenge negative power structures. They then act as role models to other women and girls in their communities.

When disasters hit, women are too often excluded from decision-making at all levels. Supporting women to take decisions in emergencies and to speak out when their needs are not being met, chips away at the patriarchal systems that keep them powerless in their everyday lives.  

But there is a nuance though in our women’s leadership work that is critical. We are often challenged (and challenge ourselves) with the important point that just promoting women’s leadership won’t necessarily stop women leaders reinforcing the structures that keep them vulnerable.

We need to see women’s leadership through a feminist lens

Women leaders must have the capacity, information and knowledge to lead and support other women and their communities to achieve their rights – regardless of ethnic backgrounds, religion, sexuality, gender identity, age, disability, or whether they are survivors of sexual violence and subsequently stigmatised. The most marginalised must not be left behind if we are to achieve gender equality.

By promoting women’s leadership and embedding it into our emergency responses, we are putting women’s rights at the centre of humanitarianism. Have we got it completely right? Not yet.

We have a long way to go to embed an intersectional feminist lens in our humanitarian work and we are working in contexts where promoting women’s leadership is immensely challenging.

It will take time, but we have to celebrate the successes. In our work with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, we are bringing women together in safe spaces, developing women’s accountability committees and encouraging girls to learn new skills. This is critical to start challenging existing power dynamics. It is a big achievement in this context, but we know we can’t stop there.

Sonya Ruparel