Emergencies, disasters and our humanitarian response

Areas we focus on:


ActionAid’s work in emergencies in 2018

Emergencies responded to

People supported by ActionAid

Dignity kits distributed to women and girls in Rohingya refugee camps


ActionAid’s recent emergency work

What are humanitarian crises or humanitarian emergencies? 

Humanitarian crises refers to an event or set of events that threaten the health, safety and livelihoods of a large number of people.1

What are the different types of humanitarian crises?

Humanitarian crises can be divided into the following:

  • Man-made emergencies such as conflict and industrial accidents. 

  • Disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones, hurricanes and even health-related epidemics. 

  • Complex emergencies which are a combination of both natural hazards and man-made emergencies such as food insecurity and displacement of people. 

Women and girls’ rights in emergencies

Ensuring that we work with women means that we do not overlook needs or vulnerabilities that are specific to women and girls in emergencies. We provide women-only safe spaces, where women and girls can access education and training, often for the first time in their lives. They learn to read, gain new skills and start to recognise their own potential.

In these safe spaces, women and girls receive emotional support for the horrors they have experienced. They can also access medical referrals for cases of rape and other forms of violence.

ActionAid Bangladesh has set up six safe spaces for women in the refugee camp for Rohingya Muslims in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. By the end of 2018, these safe spaces had supported nearly 16,000 women and girls who had escaped the conflict in Myanmar.

Supporting Rohingya women and girls who have survived violence

Fatema, 35, is an ActionAid counsellor and trained paramedic working in a refugee camp for Rohingya Muslims in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Fatema provides emotional support to traumatised women and girls fleeing violence in Rakhine state, Myanmar. "One woman was pregnant and fleeing with her husband,” she says. “Her baby and husband were killed and she had to witness this. I saw marks of an attack on her body. She was crying and crying."

Fatema supports survivors with counselling and guidance. "We tell them that what happened is not your fault. You have to survive, you have to live. And when you live, you have to live with dignity."  
Despite the challenges of her work, which often brings her to tears, Fatema is glad to be helping survivors rebuild their lives. "I feel really great doing this job," she says. "It makes me feel really happy if I can lessen a woman's suffering even by a small amount."

Fatema, 35, an ActionAid counsellor in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Noor Alam/ActionAid

Rapid response and recovery led by women 

We know from our emergency response work, most recently in Malawi, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Kenya, Somaliland and Nepal, that women bring vital skills, resources and experience to humanitarian response.

Women’s participation in decision-making is not only a fundamental human right. It has been proven to contribute to better disaster preparedness and risk reduction, as well as peace building and conflict resolution in communities.2  

Prioritising women’s needs after Cyclone Idai

Since Cyclone Idai made landfall in southern Africa on March 14, 2019, 750 people have been confirmed dead and thousands more have been injured, displaced and left homeless. Across Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, the long process of recovery is only just beginning.

At the camps where we are responding, ActionAid has set up Women’s Forums which are looking at how food is being distributed and how transparent the process is, as well as issues of sanitation and ensuring the protection of women and girls.

These forums are also making sure that non-food items are coming into the camps and being distributed to households. Progress, pictured, is helping with the distribution of aid following the cyclone. "I am here representing women as their leader," she says.

Find out more about our work after Cyclone Idai

Progress, leader and community mobiliser in Zimbabwe

Takaitei Bote/ActionAid

Building resilience for the future

In the months and years following an emergency, we work with local women to give them the support they need to face the future with renewed hope. This could be helping raise houses above floods levels, assisting them to get back to work with loans, or providing them with farmyard animals or means of transportation.

We endeavour to listen to what women and girls really need to rebuild their lives after an emergency. In Sierra Leone, our commitment to long-term support means we continue to work with grieving communities who were affected by the Ebola crisis, to help them recover from the physical, psychological and financial losses caused by the outbreak.

In areas that face high numbers of natural hazards, we train women to respond to the next disaster when it hits.

For example, in Nepal, ActionAid teaches schoolchildren skills to protect themselves when earthquakes strike.

In Bangladesh, we train women to lead people to shelters during cyclones. The results are astonishing: Cyclone Mahasen killed 17 people in Bangladesh in 2013, compared to 3,500 deaths as a result of Cyclone Sidr in 2007.

Women’s leadership in East Africa

In 2017, back-to-back droughts and protracted conflict left over 14 million people at risk of hunger in East Africa. ActionAid UK has helped deliver life-saving support to more than 245,000 people across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somaliland.

Luijah has worked at ActionAid Kenya for 10 years and is a project monitor in Isiolo County, Kenya, which was hit hard by the 2017 drought.

She manages six food distribution points as part of a Food for Assets programme, helping 1,800 vulnerable families in the region.

"I feel great about being a strong female leader in the community,” says Luijah. “With Food for Assets, women are becoming more empowered in their household; they are managing the food. Men used to take charge of the money so women didn’t have control."

The programme has also kick-started a table-sharing system, where those who have more share with those who have less. "I love working with the community ... and helping to empower women and save lives," says Luijah.

Read more about women's leadership in humanitarian response

Woman leader Luijah directs an ActionAid food distribution for people suffering from drought in Kenya

Alice Oldenburg/ActionAid


  • 1https://www.humanitariancoalition.ca/info-portal/factsheets/what-is-a-humanitarian-crisis
  • 2On the frontline: catalysing women's leadership in humanitarian action (PDF) http://www.actionaid.org/sites/files/actionaid/on_the_frontline_catalysing_womens_leadership_in_humanitarian_action.pdf

Top image: Aftermath of the 2018 Indonesia tsunami. Alessandro Serrano/ActionAid

Page updated 9 December 2021